By Billy Easley II, ‘13
Ed. Note (May 6, 2011): Subsequent to an investigation by the U.Va. Police Department, Johnathan Perkins '11 has acknowledged that the allegations of police misconduct and racial profiling contained in his Apr. 22 letter to the editor were fabricated "to bring attention to police misconduct."
For more, see the University's official press release at http://www.facebook.com/notes/virginia-law-weekly/breaking-perkins-recants-police-misconduct-claims/214090931948156
This news story is in reference to the letter published by Johnathan Perkins ‘11 on page 3.
Jonathan Perkins’s letter, and the encounter described therein, is defined at least in part by a profound sense of powerlessness. But it also raises questions: How should the community and the police respond? The Virginia Law Weekly interviewed Profs. Anne Coughlin and Kim Forde-Mazrui for their insight and thoughts regarding the incident. Law Weekly also contacted U.Va. Chief of Police Michael Gibson for comment. While he was unable to respond, as he is currently out of the office, Capt. Donald McGee of the University Police Dept. informed us that they have been informed of the incident, filed it as a formal complaint, and are currently investigating the matter.
The first thing Prof. Coughlin emphasized was the need to put the entire issue in perspective. “This problem exists everywhere,” she said. “It’s not a local but a national problem.”As members of society, we engage in a contract with our police officers; a balancing act between the intrusiveness with which they can invade our liberties and the necessity of maintaining a safe society. The problem is that the cost of that agreement is not spread evenly across the different strands of our society. Most often, the cost falls most heavily on young black males – although they are not the only ones to feel the costs.
Prof. Forde-Mazrui echoed these sentiments, saying that this type of conduct is present everywhere – as Perkins notes, this is not the first time he has been subjected to such treatment. Forde-Mazrui added an interesting corollary, pointing to the emails that the student body typically receives after an incident that warrants police attention: “These broad descriptions are troublesome because it makes it possible for officers to investigate anyone.” When a description is of a black male of indeterminate age, it casts such a wide net for police officers to operate with such little guidance, that even well-meaning officers are likely to engage in such interactions. “The fact that it is difficult to know whether the police were acting lawfully is itself part of the problem regarding the law surrounding law enforcement.”
The question left unasked is this: What is the solution? No matter how striking this teachable moment is to the greater Law School community, or how empowered Jonathan Perkins may feel by publicizing his experience, will anything stemming from this issue translate into something meaningful if action isn’t taken to prevent a similar incident from occurring?
Yet the reality of the situation does not support the practicality of a change in the law – and it’s telling that neither professor advocated or even mentioned standards that would better guide officers through their determinations to stop and search individuals. Coughlin hopes “the police department will step up” and honestly believes Police Chief Michael Gibson will do so. Forde-Mazrui says, “If the police are authorized to investigate in this manner then the law is a problem.”
There is another thread wound within these events that is not founded in the law: respect. Both Coughlin and Forde-Mazrui described the manner in which these two officers treated Perkins as unprofessional. From the sarcastic tone the police adopted throughout the encounter, to their refusal to identify themselves and give their badge numbers, the entire exchange was one in which Perkins was demeaned by what Prof. Forde-Mazrui called the “cavalier attitude” of the officers. This entire situation may have not ballooned to what it is today had the officers dealt with Perkins in a more respectful manner.