Our own slippery slope?

Even under the most ideal circumstances, policing and other aspects of the administration of justice in the United States can be characterized as hard work and a high-wire balancing act conducted on land. It involves the attempt by justice system officials to protect the lives and property of the broader public while simultaneously assuring that those individuals who threaten those lives and possessions are also afforded the protections of our laws and Constitution. Achieving that delicate balance is made all the more difficult when attempted on a slippery slope.

Today, it is attempted in a social arena characterized by expanding economic inequality, joblessness and family disruption, a history of racial discord, and a seemingly ever-increasing tide of crime and violence — and it must be accomplished on a very slippery slope. Almost every city in every state has experienced some aspect of this tight-rope act within its justice systems over the last four decades. Both legitimate and sometimes unwarranted fears of crime have led to public outcries for greater and more sustained efforts at crime control on the part of the police, prosecutors and courts. But much too often these much-needed efforts at crime control morph into practices and policies that themselves threaten the delicate balance between public safety and the protection and safety of the very citizens who stand to benefit from reduced crime.

As America’s large cities began to be hit hard by sharply rising rates of property crime and violence beginning in the mid-1970s, evidence of this slippery slope emerged. There were numerous instances where police tactics and protocols geared toward the targeting of physically agile, mobile, elusive and often aggressive inner city young male offenders appeared to spill over into the treatment of older females and males, and sometimes children as well. Some spillover effects resulted from policing’s inevitable “urgency of the moment” features. Some derived from blind allegiance to established bureaucratic guidelines or through unintended consequences and error. Regardless of their source, most of such incidents arise in cities and communities that have taken on the understandable task of trying to do more to actively suppress high rates of crime within their borders.

As our suburbs and small towns have begun increasingly to experience big city-like crime patterns and, in response, have put in place big-city crime control tactics, the delicate balance between law enforcement as crime suppression and its goals for the protection of persons suspected of crime is impacted in those places as well.

The tragic and likely unnecessary death of Monroe Isadore may well symbolize our small city’s halting efforts to tread that slippery slope. Some Pine Bluffians have accused their fellow citizens who question the appropriateness of the actions taken by the Pine Bluff police as engaging in “race baiting.” Such labeling serves no useful purpose and may itself suppress the kind of full-fledged community discussion about race, crime and policing in our city that is sorely needed. Race matters both in terms of the extremely high crime rates found among African Americans and the fact that nationwide most of the “spillover” incidents that have arisen from efforts to suppress crime have disproportionately impacted people of color.

However, lest we conclude that race (of the victim and of presiding city officials and the police chief in this instance) was the sole and determining factor underlying that tragic death, we need only consider this fact. To the extent that it exists, Pine Bluff’s path down our current slippery slope began many years ago. It was Carl Redus, whom we first asked to reduce our high homicide rate. Responding to our concerns, he took a hands-on approach by trying to get guns off the street through identifying and targeting young, black male suspects. Those micro-managing efforts led to a rift with the then-current police chief who questioned the mayor’s tactics and was later fired.

It is also worth noting that the widely publicized accidental shooting by the police of a 92-year-old black woman, Kathryn Johnson, in Atlanta during 2006 occurred in a city with both a black mayor and police chief. Thus, regardless of their race, the public demands of our elected and appointed officials that they successfully carry out the task of lowering crime rates — rates which are for the most part rooted in social conditions far beyond their control.

That said, lingering questions remain about the wisdom and judgment used by current Chief Jeff Hubanks in allowing the kind of deadly force used in the Isadore incident, especially given the man’s age and known visual and hearing impairments. Yet, if that tragic incident is responded to with thoughtfulness and a resolve by our city to seek meaningful change, we may be able to better navigate in the future a set of problems that has beset most other urban centers within our nation. This is a watershed moment, and we must act now to assure that the water does not become ice that speeds our descent down a slippery slope. Only through honest and open civic dialogue can we achieve that goal.

Darnell F. Hawkins received a doctorate in sociology from the University of Michigan and a law degree from the University of North Carolina. He currently lives in Pine Bluff after retiring from the University of Illinois at Chicago where he specialized in criminal justice.