How to Avoid Being Stopped by a Cop: Think Like One

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What happens to people who live or work in communities that are targets of aggressive policing strategies? According to a study published this month in Law & Society Review, they develop a kind of street intelligence about law enforcement behavior that makes them think like cops in order to avoid arousing officer interest—and at the same time undermines the sense of community.

Such “copwise” wisdom has become a feature of many poor neighborhoods of color across America, as a consequence of  the  expansion of tough-on-crime approaches, writes researcher Forrest Stuart in the study, entitled, “Becoming “Copwise”: Policing, Culture, and the Collateral Consequences of Street-Level Criminalization.”

Stuart spent five years interviewing and following residents of Los Angeles’ Skid Row neighborhood, which became the object of intensive “zero-tolerance” policing  by the Los Angeles Police Department starting in 2006. He found that inhabitants of the area, who were on average stopped at least five times a year by police for interrogations but were not arrested,  had developed a pattern of protective behavior —like avoiding walking on certain streets at times when they knew officers would be on alert,  or chasing away derelicts whose presence would lead to greater police scrutiny of all those nearby.

In one example cited by Stuart, for example, African-American street vendors showed intense hostility to a white person who tried to set up a stall nearby because they were convinced he would bring police attention to the block. A later interview Stuart conducted with local police confirmed it.

Stuart wrote that such protective behavior is similar to the way African-American parents instruct their children to avoid any behavior that would bring them scrutiny by police—a conversation known colloquially as ‘The Talk.’

“The ubiquity of the talk in black households across the nation alerts us to the fact that an entire segment of the American population has been forced to become copwise, with all its advantages and disadvantages, as a rite of passage into adulthood,” wrote Stuart.

The study is available for a fee here. (Journalists who wish to access the study free of charge should email Deputy Editor Alice Popovici at alice@thecrimereport.org)

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