To most of the nation, the most damning thing about Freddie Gray’s conduct wasn’t that he possessed a knife, as so many other people do. It’s that he ran. According to Lt. Brian Rice, Gray made eye-contact with him, then took off. While people can understand carrying a knife, they can’t understand flight. It seems so, so, wrong.
But then, they may have never enjoyed the experience of the arbitrary interaction, where a guy gets thrown to the ground, searched and, upon discovering that he’s clean, cut loose.
The law, on the other hand, sees flight as a significant factor:
In a 2000 case from Chicago, Illinois v. Wardlow, the court ruled that police officers can establish reasonable suspicion to stop and search if the person is in a high-crime area and sees the officers before fleeing.
The Supreme Court’s opinion, by C.J. Rehnquist, combined three factors: first, the ubiquitous “high crime area” which is wherever police say it is, and invariably means any area where poor people live. Second, contact between police and their suspect, even if that means merely looking in the direction of the police (which, of course, will be proven when the officer says, “the defendant looked in our direction”). And third, “flight,” which means running away. It’s unclear whether walking at a brisk pace is flight, though the characterization of the defendant’s actions also comes via the officer’s description.
If you’re a Supreme Court justice, the idea that someone would run from the cops is clearly suspicious. Very suspicious indeed. But to a guy on the street?
Naturally, many people run if there are warrants for their arrest, fearing that if the police check their names they will be hauled to jail. People might flee because they have drugs and do not want to be in possession of contraband if officers catch them.
Yet some say they also are driven by fear of the unknown. In St. Louis, for instance, young men talk of being caught up in what they call a “free case” — in which, they believe, an officer trumps up charges or plants contraband to meet arrest quotas. Here in Baltimore, residents complain that the police might rough them up during random stops, even if they do not try to escape.
As became clear in the New York stop & frisk cases, millions of young black and Hispanic men were tossed to make Compstat numbers. The numbers were staggering clear, about who was being stopped, purportedly because they did something sufficiently suspicious to attract police attention, and how few were arrested.
The putative purpose was to get guns off the streets, and yet there were 620 stops that found nothing for every gun found. If you happened to be one of the 620 stopped for no good reason, you probably didn’t find it nearly as much fun as some might think. You didn’t like being treated like dirt, manhandled, thrown against a wall or the ground, searched. And that’s assuming the officer wasn’t in a foul mood that day, and decided that you needed to be taught a lesson about who’s the boss. Imagine risking a beating every time you leave the house?
So kids learned to avoid cops. Kids learned to run. And that was to avoid the potential pain of a beating, even though every once in a while a kid was killed for no reason. Well, no reason to the kid, though the officer rarely was at a loss for being able to explain away his conduct through the sad cop eyes of fear for his life. Such a sensitive group of ‘fraidy cats, those cops are, but we must protect them as they’re our heroes. Thin blue line and all.
But since it’s the kid’s choice to run, there is little sympathy for what follows:
Jeff Roorda, the business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association, challenged the contention that people run from the police because of harassment or brutality.
“I’m not going to refrain from swimming in Loch Ness because I think there’s a monster in there any more than a kid on the street should refrain from complying with the police because of the urban myth that the cop has some motivation to make up the charges,” he said. “People don’t get ‘free cased.’ They run from the police because they’ve got some reason to run from the police.”
And when that happens, Mr. Roorda added, the results can be bad. “Not because of something the police do,” he said. “Because of something the guy running did, and that is fail to comply.”
Whether urban myth or not, the fact remains that kids who run may not have anything to hide, but just a desire not to get beaten, abused or manhandled that day. The attitude Roorda evinces, and in fairness, Roorda’s job as police union hack is to make up stories, no matter how ridiculous, that sanitize police conduct and shift the blame anywhere but on his union members, is common: it’s not the cops’ fault for beating these kids, but the kids’ fault for running. In other words, once they run, they deserve whatever happens to them. They don’t want to die? Don’t run. Easy-peasy police logic.
But life for a kid on the streets isn’t characterized by the cop’s, or the Supreme Court Justice’s, mindset.
As children, several Baltimore residents said, they turned running from the police into a high-stakes game of tag. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity or gave only their street names because they did not want to be identified by the police.
A 21-year-old man who goes by Reek said his youthful encounters with the police usually went something like this: Officers would pull up while he stood with friends on a corner and tell them to move. They would make a smart remark to the officers, the officers would respond, and so they would jaw back and forth until the officers seemed to have enough and got out of the car.
“And they’ll chase us,” Reek said.
Some days they get away from the cops. Some days they don’t. This isn’t to suggest that fleeing from police is the right thing to do, or the best choice to make, but then, most of us would find it untenable to live in fear of what might come of any and every interaction with police, even if it’s only eye contact, that could result in a beating, an arrest for resisting arrest, or death. Given the options, running isn’t a crazy reaction at all.