UCLA professor focuses on laws enabling police brutality during Mudd Center lecture

UCLA Law Professor Devon Carbado discussed racial inequality and policing from the U.S. Constitution’s point of view

Rachel Hicks

Equality and its relation to the Fourth Amendment was the focus of the most recent lecture in Washington and Lee University’s “Equality and Difference” series. Devon Carbado, professor of law at UCLA School of Law, examined the constitutional circumstances behind racial inequality and policing in his lecture last Thursday.

Carbado is associate vice chancellor of BruinX, a think tank that promotes equity, diversity and inclusion at UCLA. He is also the author of “Acting White?: Rethinking Race in Post-Racial America,” a book about what it means to “act black” or “act white.”

Carbado said black people are targeted by the police. But he said he feels the problem is “about police power, not about bad cops.”

Racial stereotypes are implicitly in every person’s head, Carbado said. Bias is not something that can be fixed, he argued, but the way police officers act under the law is possible to alter.

Carbado said it is “perfectly constitutional” to arrest a black person if there is probable cause to do so. What is unconstitutional is to arrest a black person under racial suspicion with no probable cause.

“There’s a misconception that bad policemen are at fault for police brutality,” he said. “It’s actually a broader issue—not with individual policemen targeting individual blacks, but with a flawed system of law.”

Carbado said he does not blame “bad” police officers, or police that have an agenda to arrest black people, but blames the law itself and what constitutes probable cause.

The problem lies with the definition of ‘probable cause’ and when a police officer should exercise it or not, he said.

Carbado pointed out how the news is laden with complaints about ‘stop and frisk’ incidents, in which black people claim violation of their Fourth Amendment rights.

But very few of these complaints make it to higher courts.

“Cities and municipalities end up dishing out an awful lot [of money] in settlements around police officers,” Carbado said.

While the Fourth Amendment protects citizens against searches and seizures without probable cause, Carbado said several questions can emerge when it comes to ‘stop and frisk’ incidents: Is a frisk a search? Is a stop a seizure? What kind of evidence do you need to show to justify it?

Carbado said regardless of what classifies a ‘stop and frisk’ incident, police only need probable cause to ‘stop and frisk’ a person.

“Police can almost always find probable cause to stop someone because the law is ridiculously easy to break,” Carbado said.

In other words, there is an issue with the criminalization of non-criminal activities, a list of activities that aren’t so serious but still criminal.

For example, cursing, jaywalking and removing trash from a bin are all against the law and are probable cause for police to arrest a person.

The more black people come into contact with the police, Carbado said, the greater their chance of getting arrested. The problem is exacerbated when police officers are too familiar with loopholes in the law.

There becomes “a disincentive for police officers to exercise care,” Carbado said.

Carbado said he feels it is important to go back and revisit the law, while not paying too much attention to racial stereotypes.

“If we could reduce how frequently blacks are in contact with police officers,” he said, “we’d lessen violence.”