Monday, July 11, 2016

The Fatal Costs of Drug Interdiction

By Professor Eric Miller
Originally posted on Huffington Post

Philander Castile was pulled over for a broken tail-light and shot while he reached for his registration. While there has already been much discussion of the shooting, one point is missing from the story: the police stop was likely a pretext to engage in drug interdiction.

Now I am not suggesting that Castile was stopped because he was black. Nor am I suggesting the contrary—that he was *not* stopped because he was black. What I am suggesting is that the primary purpose of the stop was *not* to tell him about his busted tail-light—an admirable act of beneficence on the part of the police officer—but to search Castile’s car for drugs. And it is this aspect of the encounter—a police officer, looking for drugs, and finding an armed individual inside the car, that inevitably produced the deadly result.

How do I know the officer was looking for drugs? In their magisterial book, Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship (2014), authors Charles R Epp, Steven Maynard-Moody, and Donald P Haider-Markel detail that there are two different types of traffic stop. One occurs when the car is speeding about ten miles per hour over the speed limit. Those stops are genuinely to give the driver a ticket. They are brief and polite, and people of all races find them a minor irritant but usually a polite and dignified experience. Drug stops occur on a pretext, and any minor vehicular violation will do: two miles per hour over the limit; failing to signal when turning; or a broken tail-light. This last, of course, was the justification for stopping Castile. And Epp and his co-authors also note that African Americans disproportionately bear the burden of this disparate style of policing. The decision to use pretext is overwhelmingly made on the basis of race.

If he was following ordinary police training, the Officer approached Philander Castile to look for drugs, or at least to keep Castile occupied long enough that a K-9 unit could arrive to sniff around the car. To do so, he would have to keep Castile talking, and perhaps make the process onerous enough that Castile would consent to a search of the car, including the trunk. It is reasonable to think that, approaching to look for drugs, the Officer’s guard was up in a way it would not have been had he been issuing a ticket. The act of looking for drugs, and perhaps the race of the driver, might have made the Officer more likely to suspect Castile was a drug dealer, and so more likely to be dangerous. When this suspicion was erroneously confirmed when Castile alerted the Officer to his legal possession of a gun, the Officer shot Castile dead.

The problem precipitating so many black deaths at the hands of the police may be racial profiling. But the underlying problem is a style of drug interdiction that convinces the police that ordinary civilians are potentially dangerous drug dealers. In promoting this form of drug interdiction, the police treat whole categories of people as a means to an end, an object of suspicion rather than an object of concern. Castile was an object in the way of a car search; worse, he turned out (legally) to have a gun. If racism did not kill him, a (racially biased) technique of policing likely did.

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