May 25, 2013
Pat-Downs Hit Middle America Where It Counts
Posted on Nov 24, 2010
The recent outrage expressed by white males and females over intrusive airport pat-downs may have an upside. At least at the nation’s airports, non-minority airline passengers who seek to board an airplane are being sensitized to the indignities that are a routine part of the lives of some men of color who merely walk or drive down a street.
For reasons purportedly related to public safety, African-American, Hispanic and Asian males are disproportionately stopped and frisked by law enforcement officers on American streets and highways. Recent news stories have focused on the creation of a database from the 600,000 police detentions in New York each year. As the New York Times has reported from analysis of the data, frisks or pat-down searches occur in almost 60 percent of the stops and at a rate that is disproportionately higher for minorities. The rate of frisks for blacks and Latinos in New York is nine times that of whites who are stopped.
Although the creation of a database from the stops has fueled debate, the stop-and-frisk is not just a New York Police Department tactic or even an urban phenomenon. Police detentions and the concurrent clothing frisks are just as prevalent in other cities, suburbs and rural areas as in New York City.
Putting the “Frisk” in “Stop and Frisk”
In a seminal 1967 decision, Terry v. Ohio, the United States Supreme Court decided that a brief detention (seizure) of a citizen is constitutionally permissible. Fourth Amendment protections do not preclude police from stopping citizens in their tracks to ask questions or conduct a brief investigation to dispel suspicion about the activity of the person stopped.
To investigate these two possibilities, people who are stopped are subjected to an exterior patting of the upper body clothing over the chest and under the arms as well as a sweep of the hands up and down the legs including the upper thigh and hip area—the same procedures that are used in Transportation Security Administration pat-downs. Police officers who detain individuals on the street search at least as intrusively as do TSA agents conducting airport passenger pat-downs. In fact —and this is not well known outside the population of impacted subjects and the police—police officers may conduct a tactile or visual search of the undergarments of men and women because of their training that small, packaged quantities of drugs may be hidden in the undergarments of users and street sellers.
As white male air travelers take up the cause of YouTube hero John “Don’t Touch My Junk” Tyner, a snicker of schadenfreude may be shared among working class and lower class men of color. They may well wonder why the revelation that pat-downs are a degrading imposition of power by government agents has taken such a long time to emerge.
White males reflecting on the comparison might think that their indignity in the fluorescent glow of an airport concourse is worse than a body inspection on a dark city street. But that conclusion is naive. Imagine if the TSA agent were conducting the pat-down on a street corner or in an alley, and another TSA agent was stationed next to a patrol car with his hand gripping a service revolver or a shotgun. The isolated circumstances—out of the view of witnesses and marked by palpable apprehension from the assertion of power by police officers who suspect a crime may be afoot—make the situations difficult to equate.
TSA passenger pat-downs have spawned overdue questions about the need for such humiliating intrusions on the personhood of so many to secure an assumed, but unsubstantiated, additional measure of safety. Many, from libertarians such as Ron Paul to tea party darling Glenn Beck, are saying they don’t think the pat-downs are needed.
Where were these defenders of privacy when the subjects of the intrusive searches were not from the white male cohort of society?
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