Back in 2003, during one of those code-yellow terrorist alerts, I was doing interviews near the Jefferson Memorial in Washington when an anonymous tourist reported me to the U.S. Park Police. I was detained as a "suspicious person" and my notebook confiscated. Asked why, one of the officers replied, "We hear you've been asking curious questions."
Later I learned that the tourist also thought I looked a lot like Saddam Hussein. And that's all it took. Say goodbye to Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
In the years since, that same police tactic, known as "stop and frisk," has become one of the most used - and abused - methods of operation in the war on drugs. Are you worried about the National Security Agency waging a war on terror by going through your telephone logs? Try getting bent over the hood of your car and having police go through your pockets.
In New York City, where a lawsuit challenging "stop and frisk" is being heard in federal court, an analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union found that "innocent New Yorkers have been subjected to police stops and street interrogations more than 4 million times since 2002, and that black and Latino communities continue to be the overwhelming target of these tactics."
In a city of 8 million people, that is equal to half the population. Sure, some guns and drugs have been confiscated. But the jury is out on whether the practice has, in fact, caused a drop in homicides. It could just as easily be that gunshot victims are being saved because of better-equipped emergency medical vehicles and highly skilled medical technicians.
Meanwhile, the very fabric of society is being frayed by racially targeted policing.
"African Americans do not fear traffic tickets but the all-too frequent investigatory stops and the degrading and intrusive police actions that accompany these stops," said Donald Haider-Markel, a political scientist at the University of Kansas. He and fellow researchers Charles Epps and Steven Maynard-Moody have written a soon-to-be-published book about the consequences of black motorists' encounters with police in the Kansas City metro area.
"Persistent questions by police about where the driver lives or why he or she is in the area, handcuffing, police searches, being ordered to stand at the front of one's vehicle as drivers pass and gawk - these fears shape where African Americans feel free to drive, what they feel free to wear and, ultimately, African Americans' sense of their status in American society," Haider-Markel said. "Police stops thus contribute directly to the enduring racial dividing line in American society."
This mistrust often leaves many black communities in a bind. As a recent poll by National Public Radio found, African Americans cite crime as their primary concern - and at the same time give police low marks.
"It's a thorny issue," said Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington. "On one hand, you have people telling police, 'I'm scared to go to the convenience store; I can't leave my house without fear of getting shot. We want you here.' On the other hand, residents are saying, 'We feel under siege by police. You are making us guilty by association, because of our race, the color of our skin.'"
There has to be a better way to improve public safety without engaging in massive, racially targeted violations of the Fourth Amendment.
Washington Police Chief Cathy Lanier thinks she's found it. In the District of Columbia, police have made roughly 2,000 stops a year since 2010. During that time, she said, there have been only 20 complaints from motorists.
"I am not a fan of zero-tolerance policing," Lanier said. "When you have all your officers stopping and arresting citizens for minor violations, you don't have anybody left to go after the real crooks, and then it looks like police are in cahoots with the criminals."
As for the argument that black neighborhoods are targeted by police because that's where most of the violent offenders commit their crimes, she said, "Those same neighborhoods also have most of the victims and witnesses. To solve and prevent crime, we must have their trust and cooperation."
It's time for other law enforcement agencies to follow her lead.
I'd been detained for making what the law calls "furtive movements." That means I appeared to be up to something - at least to one bifocal-eyed tourist. Enough already.
Courtland Milloy writes for The Washington Post.