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After Trayvon

It was a normal day. Courtney had left work and was picking up her husband.  Being the parents of two adolescent boys, they were expected and needed at home.  As she waited for Russell, her husband, a police officer drove by and gave her a double look.  He drove by a second time and looked surprised to see her still there, still waiting.  When Russell got in, the cop was parked in front of them and waved them on.  When they passed, he pounced. The couple was pulled over.  The cop car's lights went on.  Two more cruisers arrived.  The police, it turned out, claimed to be investigating a robbery in the neighborhood.  They were looking for an African-American male wearing a blue shirt.   Russell joked that one of the police officers, being an African-American male wearing a blue shirt, looked more like the suspect than they did. Courtney asked why they picked her up if that was what they were looking for and was told they thought she might be driving "the getaway car."  For more than 45 minutes the couple was detained.

The police were suspicious because Courtney was nervous. They wanted to know how long she had been "driving with a suspended license" (she wasn't).  They wanted to know why she was nervous.  They wanted to know what she was hiding.  She explained that she had two teenage sons at home and was concerned about their safety (they were locked out as it turned out).  She had places to be.  After making the couple sit in the hot sun for nearly an hour, they were released.  The police officers' fishing expedition was revealed when they admitted their computers had been down and the robbery suspect had already been caught.

The ordeal was not over for Courtney and her family.  She was humiliated. As she waited for the police to release her, she worried that friends, colleagues and neighbors might see her there.  And the experience left her shaken.  "I had trouble sleeping." She told me, "I was angry and afraid."

This scenario plays out every day, thousands of times around our country.  President Obama talked about what it is like to be an African-American man in the United States but the racism he encountered as such extends to women.  Courtney and her family are African-American.  She has told me she also hears car doors lock as she walks by and is followed as she shops.

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting and George Zimmerman acquittal, we are talking about race and how we deal with crime.  It is about time and I hope it comes to something.  In addition to being wrong and unconstitutional, the laws aimed at preventing crime such as "stand your ground"  or "stop and frisk" aren't effective.  In New York City, crime is down.  Since "stop and frisk" was implemented, the number of people stopped has jumped 605 percent.  In 2011, nearly 700,000 people were stopped.  And what is the success rate?  Approximately 88 percent of those incidents resulted in neither an arrest or summons.  If nothing else, this seems like a colossal waste of time.   Minorities make up 86 percent of the people stopped (Stat source: Morning Joe).

As for the "stand your ground" or "castle doctrine" laws, how effective are they?  States that have implemented them have seen homicides and non-negligent manslaughter rates go UP by about eight percent (source: Texas A&M report).

They found:

"Results presented indicate that expansions to castle doctrine do not deter crime. 

Furthermore, our estimates are sufficiently precise as to rule out moderate-sized deterrence effects. Thus, while our view is that it is a priori reasonable to expect that strengthening self-defense law would deter crime, we find this is not the case. More significantly, results indicate that castle doctrine laws increase total homicides by around 8 percent. Put differently, the laws induce an additional 600 homicides per year across the 21 states in our sample that expanded castle doctrine over this time period. This finding is robust to a wide set of difference-in-differences specifications, including region-by-year fixed effects, state-specific linear time trends, and controls for time-varying factors such as economic conditions, state welfare spending, and policing and incarceration rates. These findings provide evidence that lowering the expected cost of lethal force causes there to be more of it."

Personally, I think that last line is important.  These findings provide evidence that lowering the expected cost of lethal force causes there to be more of it.

The idea that we need to look at these laws and the impact they have is not a purely liberal one; Senator John McCain spoke about the need to do so this weekend:

"The 'stand your ground' law may be something that may needs to be reviewed by the Florida legislature or any other legislature that has passed such legislation," McCain said on CNN's "State of the Union."

The "stand your ground" law was not a part of George Zimmerman's defense nor was it a prominent feature of his trial but to assume that it did not influence his behavior the night he shot Martin is to show a naivete that borders on stupidity.  At least one juror on the case has admitted it had an impact on the verdict.

When I was a kid, we were taught to trust the police.  You want children to view them as a force for good and all.  As time has gone on, my impressions have been less than favorable.  When I lived in NYC, police brutality was up by as much as 30 percent.  Police officers seemed all too willing to bust down the wrong door or shoot an unarmed person with little or no provocation.  I was there when Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea was shot 19 times by police when he reached for his wallet after they asked him for ID.  The police actually fired 41 shots at the unarmed man. This was the inspiration for Bruce Springsteen's song "American Skin (41 Shots)."

Since President Obama spoke last week, the response has been pretty much predictable.  The left has appreciated his candor but the right sees it as "race baiting."  The response on both sides was swift.  I thought Obama's remarks were moving and important to explain what life is like for a huge segment of our population.  White people don't have to explain how to behave in front of police to their kids.  The idea of having a child sit in a morgue for DAYS without informing the parents would never have occurred to me until Trayvon Martin.

Maybe that conversation about race that we need has finally started.  I just hope we listen to each others' words, not just hear what we want to hear.

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