2 Chicago men arrested for participating in activismMonday, August 11, 2014 at 9:55 am by Alex Wolff
Kevin Tapia and Felipe Hernandez—young Latino men from Chicago’s southwest side—spent the weeks leading up to the Affordable Care Act’s enactment going door-to-door on behalf of their community, informing residents of the imminent changes laid out in the new law. They found jobs with Grassroots Collaborative and worked to make sure that the citizens of their local neighborhoods would be covered in time for the March 31 deadline.
With the law’s rollout less than a week away, Tapia and Hernandez’s efforts had brought them to Garfield Ridge—a predominately white neighborhood. There they were greeted by four police officers who stopped them, frisked them and charged them with unlawfully soliciting business. Though the Chicago Sun-Times initially reported that the police were responding to a local 911 call presuming Tapia and Hernandez’s work to be little more than an attempt to scam the elderly, Grassroots Collaborative have highlighted the incident as an obvious example of racial profiling.
The precedent for a legal framework regarding stop and frisks was established in 1968 via the United States Supreme Court’s seminal ruling in Terry v. Ohio. The Court’s decision indicated that—in the absence of probable cause for an arrest—the Fourth Amendment to the United State’ Constitution protects citizens from police interrogation and frisks unless the officer can outline a “reasonable articulable suspicion” for a stop and frisk.
Probable cause is often subjective but even the most seasoned prosecutor would be grasping at straws in arguing that these officers acted within their purview when they stopped, frisked and arrested Tapia and Hernandez. The officers were responding to a deeply speculative neighborhood call two young men were engaging in entirely nonviolent behavior. What basis they had for fearing Tapia and Hernandez were armed and dangerous wasn’t clear at the time and hasn’t become any clearer since.
The charges against Tapia and Hernandez were subsequently dropped but not before the controversy had raised awareness of Chicago’s total lack of transparency and accountability in the police force, specifically with regard to stop and frisk tactics.
Whenever a Chicago police officer interacts with a member of the public—be it to provide directions to the nearest convenience store or to question eyewitnesses of a murder—they fill out a “contact card.” In theory, these forms should be the ticket for an objective record of police activity, but in practice they’re anything but. Official protocol for utilizing the cards seems nonexistent, as one policeman’s sense of necessary details to include in his or her account can differ wildly from another’s impression of the same event. Ambiguities abound.
On top of that, the cards are often impossible to obtain. Because a civilian’s name and address are noted in contact cards on occasion, officials must redact this information—manually—before fulfilling a request for documents. As a result, when large requests are filed, an Freedom of Information Act official may deny the request entirely on account of it being “burdensome.”
Research shows that when stop and frisk police tactics proceed unchecked, police officers can and do overstep their authority. A 2010 report by Columbia law professor Jeff Fagan found that nearly one in three stops by NYPD were unconstitutional or of ambiguous legality. Perhaps The Nation’s David Cole best outlines why this is problematic—the way stop and frisk is currently employed doesn’t disrupt criminal activity (like the Supreme Court originally hoped it would) but rather acts as a “generalized deterrence strategy.” Moreover, young men of color are disproportionately targeted according to Fagan’s research. The mechanism in place to prevent invasive, racially-charged stops and warrantless searches in is critically flawed, a policy operating under the guise of a useful transparency tool.
Earlier this year, Attorney General Eric Holder indicated he’d be implementing reforms that might ensure a clearer set of data about the circumstances preceding stops, searches and arrests nationwide. Now is the time to apply pressure and demand that Holder’s changes have teeth.