I Was Stopped, But Not Frisked

02/08/2012 04:09 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2012

Behind the searing light, a man yelled. "This is the police. Put your hands up."

I was only five minutes from home, walking through an unlighted stretch on my way to the community center to work out in my Silver Spring, Maryland, neighborhood, an MP3 of Stevie Wonder crooning in my ear. The light hit me in the face and I fumbled to turn down the music, but raised my hands.

Since I hadn't been able to get the music turned down, I foolishly reached in my pocket to try again, prompting a louder warning: "Get your hands up!"

The officer appeared out of the dark, shining the light beam in my face. All business, he said: "What are you doing out here?"

"I'm on my way to the community center," I said.

"Okay," he said. "Move on."

A few minutes later, I was inside the center walking on the treadmill when the officer walked in.

"You shouldn't be walking around in the dark, listening to music," he said. "You're an easy mark for an attack."

I explained that I'd lived in my multi-cultural neighborhood for two decades. I felt comfortable.

He looked around the center. "Did you see some kids running up the hill?"

I hadn't and told him so. He said that as he had approached them in the parking lot, but they ran away from him. He chased them up the hill, but they got away again. The officer didn't say that the kids had done anything wrong, only that they ran away from him.

He never said so, but I can't help but believe that the kids in question were African American. That's who plays basketball at the community center and that's who congregates in the parking lot. So the problem seemed to be that black kids ran away from a (white) cop.

Unfortunately, this doesn't seem terribly surprising to me.

I happen to be the executive director of a national criminal justice reform organization, but I'm also a middle-aged white guy. We all know that lots of privileges go along with that status, but I was reminded of it by my encounter with this officer. Just the thought of what might have happened without that white privilege the second time I foolishly put my hand back in my pocket to try to turn off the music gives me chills.

It's hardly a secret that the relationship between African American communities and law enforcement over many years has been fraught with conflict. From the old days of station-house beatings to get a confession to today's "stop and frisk" practices in New York City, an awful lot of mistrust has been engendered.

Much has changed in recent years, of course. It's not unusual anymore to have a person of color as chief of police and many jurisdictions are doing an admirable job of collecting racial data on police activity to head off any inappropriate behavior by law enforcement agents. This is all very encouraging. But at the same time, we shouldn't be surprised that some of the long-term animosity between police and communities of color hasn't dissipated. So, while I have no idea whether the kids in the parking lot were doing anything wrong, I can certainly imagine the thought process that might have led them to run from the police.

My encounter also reminds me of the racial dynamics I see in the justice system overall. For many years I've delivered a guest lecture each semester at a Washington-area college class on criminal justice. Most of the students in the class are white. In discussing drug policy, I survey them informally regarding their experiences by asking how many of their friends use drugs, have been arrested for doing so, or are currently incarcerated on a drug offense. Every hand goes up on drug use, a few for the arrest question, and hardly any for the prison issue. When I then ask why there is so little criminal justice intervention when the campus is seemingly overrun with drug users, they show great sophistication in analyzing these dynamics. They recognize that as a community, we have an investment in their future and we generally can count on them to graduate from college and enter the ranks of the productive middle class. Thus, we're all better off acknowledging that these are "youthful indiscretions."

I can't disagree with such a response, or lack thereof, by the criminal justice system. But I'm quite troubled by the responses I get to these same questions when I speak to a group of mostly African American students, where all hands remain raised for all three questions. As long as we maintain a two-tiered system for public safety -- harsh punishments for some, second chances for others -- the prospects for achieving a full democratic society will be quite troubling.