The Boston Police Department will be starting a new program in four
so-called “high-crime” neighborhoods (“ACLU skeptical of police
warrantless search plan,” Nov. 22, 2007). They will be going door to
door asking parents’ permission to make no-warrant searches of their
children’s rooms to look for guns. There are so many reasons why this
is a bad idea. I will touch on the most important ones.
No warrant. A warrant protects the rights of the police officer and the suspect. Non-Patriot Act warrants are signed by judges, who are presumably more objective and clearheaded when deciding whether a search should take place. The warrant also gives clear instruction to the officer and the suspect as to what the officer is looking for, and by extension, where the officer can look for it. For instance, a stolen piano wouldn’t be found in a medicine cabinet. A medicine cabinet search by an officer with a warrant for a piano, or a missing person, let’s say, could be challenged in court. Without a warrant, it’s a free-for-all and the police can search for anything, anywhere, without restriction. Also, even if no weapon is found during one of these no-warrant searches, any information collected during such a visit could later become harmful for the household’s residents. Because the “search” wasn’t part of an official police visit with a warrant, the gathered information could be used in almost any way.
Three against four. The plan includes sending groups of three plainclothes officers to homes in four target neighborhoods. These neighborhoods also happen to be those where many people are disenfranchised, from immigrant backgrounds or have language and cultural differences that most officers are not equipped to deal with in a respectful manner. Some residents of the four targeted areas may not understand that the police visit is voluntary; some may not understand that they have rights even after the officers enter their homes, and even after contraband is found. Also, has anyone else noticed that predominantly high-crime white neighborhoods have been left out of this “program?”
Children and parents. The understandable fear of gun violence in the ’hood is being exploited by this program. It’s overkill and unsafe for the children in so many ways. Parents need to step up and get social workers, clergy and/or trained youth workers involved long before they resort to calling the police on their own children. In St. Louis, this program was tried and failed. In Brooklyn, the last fatal police shooting of an unarmed teenager began with a mother calling 911 for help with her disabled son. The fear of gun violence is real, but this is not the way.
If the Boston Police Department is actually interested in helping youth avoid crime, there are many other ways to do so — participation in successful existing youth programs, conducting community workshops on the criminal justice system, etc. One has to wonder whether the motivation for this program had less to do with making children safe, and more to do with creating opportunities for new arrests.
Nicole Rene Atchison