Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Police would decide where people who have been arrested can and cannot go—despite the department's abysmal record on race.
Police in Charlotte, North Carolina, are planning an ordinance that is so vigorously unconstitutional, so wolf-faced crazy from concept to execution, that it may win an award for Most Bonkers Public Policy proposed for a city this year—this decade, even.
Let’s assume that every member of the Charlotte City Council succumbs to brain amoebas and they decide to pass the proposal being put forward by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.* And let’s grant that it stands for more than 24 hours before a court—any court—slaps it down with extreme prejudice.
There’s no soft way to put this: “Public safety zones” would return Charlotte to de jure segregation. Or at least, to a standard whereby white authorities could decide where black citizens can and cannot congregate.
The proposal would allow Charlotte-Mecklenburg police to ban anyone who gets arrested inside a declared “public safety zone” from ever again entering that zone. It’s a sort of blind-justice proposal modeled after the city’s prostitution-free zones, a preemptive measure designed to clear out areas that experience an uptick in crime, according to the Charlotte Observer.
But justice is anything but blind in Charlotte. A University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill study of 1.3 million traffic stops made by the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department between 2002 and 2013 found that black men ages 16–30 were more than three times as likely to be searched as other drivers. Young black men were also arrested in greater numbers than white male or white female drivers.
Perhaps this is not a surprising outcome for Charlotte’s disproportionately white police force. Even though half of the city’s population are minorities (35 percent black and 13 percent Latino), only 21 percent of CMPD officers are people of color. That same UNC-Chapel Hill study found that more than a quarter of some 500 officers whose records were scrutinized stopped black drivers at least twice as often as white drivers.
Now, once the CMPD has the power of the Public Safety Zone ordinance behind it, people can be banned from assembling in certain areas simply because they have been arrested there on some suspicion or another. A suspect who commits no crime—someone who was never even charged with one—could be blocked from entering a Public Safety Zone, at least temporarily. Alternatively, a ban could stand for as long as it takes a suspect to be cleared of wrongdoing.
And here’s still one more way to think about it: What gives police the right to say where people who have been arrested can and cannot go? Do people who have committed a crime and paid for it give up on the freedom to assemble?
Enforcing Public Safety Zones would almost certainly require more aggressive stops and profiling, meaning more searches and arrests. It could even be read as a repudiation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Rodriguez v. United States, which ruled that police cannot extend a traffic stop without reasonable suspicion. While there’s no reason to believe that this is CMPD’s goal, it’s hard to see how police would enforce Public Safety Zones in Charlotte without extensive, exhaustive stops of Charlotte residents.
And for a police department whose personnel skews white and whose stops and arrests tilt black, a Public Safety Zones ordinance would put disproportionate pressure on Charlotte’s black population.
Under the proposal—one that CMPD attorney Mark Newbold acknowledges as facing “significant constitutional hurdles”—someone who has been banned from a Public Safety Zone can appeal the decision. However, even a person who wins his appeal might still find his life utterly disrupted.
“Within five days, the person could appeal the prohibition, on grounds such as the person is caring for children inside the area or the person lives or works there,” the Charlotte Observer reports. What happens to the kids and the job over those five days?
The Charlotte City Council can’t seriously be thinking about passing an ordinance that would allow police to create Public Safety Zones and then enforce them. It wouldn’t be the first time that a police department resorted to drastic measures, though. In Washington, D.C., in 2008, the Metropolitan Police Department erected traffic roadblocks around a neighborhood called Trinidad, which was experiencing a spike in homicides, probably a result of violence between rival “crews.” Officers questioned drivers coming and going at the checkpoints; the U.S. Court of Appeals was not subtle in condemning the practice.
The purpose of the Public Safety Zones concept is not explicitly to harass black residents—no more so than any existing laws on the books are explicitly designed to harass black residents. It just happens that police officers enforcing traffic laws in Charlotte disproportionately target black drivers. No doubt, Public Safety Zones as enforced by the same (mostly white) officers will block the same (mostly black) residents.
That is, unless there is at least one adult in North Carolina who will call shenanigans and stop this unconstitutional farce before it becomes law.
*Update: A representative for the City of Charlotte notes that the CMPD has made its proposal to the public safety committee and is expected to present full language to the entire City Council soon.