A Troubling Real Life Minority Report

In the film, "Minority Report," superstar Tom Cruise’s job is to bag criminals before they commit crimes. He relies on a pair of individuals called “precogs” that possess surreal cognitive power to identify who future bad guys will be and what crimes they will commit. Once they are identified Cruise and company swoop down and haul them away. There are no courts, no appeals, and no press to plead their case. They are preserved in a state of anomie in isolated holding containers. The movie is a futuristic fantasy on the big screen, but in Wilmington, Delaware, police and city officials have emulated the crime fighting approach in the Cruise flick. They have created their own surreal world where criminals are fingered before they commit crimes.

But unlike those hauled away in Minority Report, the 200 persons that police think will commit future crimes, and have dumped into a database, were not charged with or even suspected of committing a crime. Nearly all of them are young black men. They were stopped, searched, and their photos were taken. Other than standing on corners in neighborhoods police call 'high crime areas,' no reason is given for targeting them for future arrest.

This borderline, and very dangerous legal racial targeting comes on the heels of reports from the Justice Policy Institute, which found that a third more blacks were in America’s prisons than colleges, and from the Justice Department, which found that America’s prisons and jails bulge at record levels. More than 2 million persons are now behind bars in America and nearly half of them are black. If officials in other cities follow Wilmington’s example those numbers will almost certainly swell. The difference is that many of those jailed may have already been targeted for arrest before they committed crimes.

Apart from scattered protests by the ACLU and a handful of defense attorneys over the issue of privacy and civil liberties violations, there has been no outcry from blacks over the Wilmington police watch list. In fact, the local NAACP and the Urban League officials applauded or have taken a cautious wait and see attitude toward the police policy. There are two reasons why black leaders are silent or cheer the dubious action by Wilimington police: their fear of terrorism, and crime.

The repeated warnings by President Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and FBI officials of possible new terror attacks, the Anthrax fear, the relentless official war fever, (this time with Iraq the next target), and the disproportionate number of blacks in the armed forces, has transformed blacks into fervent cheerleaders for tough military action, and strong measures against terrorism, even if the price is the gut of some civil liberties protections. Many blacks lost friends and family members in the Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. They are angry and anguished at what they regard as yet another criminal act in which blacks are also victimized.

Then there’s the myth that blacks are inherently anti-police. In June 1999, a Justice Department survey found that blacks in a dozen cities generally applauded the police. At the time, some black leaders were flabbergasted at this. The results flew in the face of the conventional wisdom that blacks were inveterate cop haters. The myth gained currency after massive protests following the gunning down of young blacks by police in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Cincinnati. But the protests by blacks were not against the police, but against racist and abusive police officers.

It’s easy to see why. Blacks are nearly twice as likely to be victims of violence as whites. The leading cause of death among young black males, and increasingly black females under age 24, is still homicide. In nearly all cases, they will be killed, injured, maimed and victimized by other blacks. Urban League officials in defending the Wilmington police policy noted that most of the victims of handgun violence in the city were blacks, and other blacks killed them. Black residents, as in Wilmington, Delaware, support those police who vigorously fight crime in black communities, even if their actions dangerously flirt with violating individual privacy and civil liberties.

Yet despite the legitimate fears of blacks over crime and security, the Wilimington police policy, even if there are no constitutional issues at stake, is a horrible policy. It criminalizes those whose only crime is being the wrong color, and in the wrong place at the wrong time. A promo line for Minority Report warned, “You can’t hide, get ready to run.” Beware: The actions of the Wilmington police, and any others tempted to follow their lead, could make those watchwords for us all.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: www.thehutchinsonreport.com. He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).

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