Policing the conversation about racism

Since the Pelham Examiner’s public launch, the police blotters have been among our most popular articles. Whether it is the undeniable humor in some of the ridiculous calls reported or a genuine interest in Pelham crime, people seem to thoroughly enjoy reading the reports.

Unfortunately, these blotters have led to controversy. In the Village of Pelham police blotter for June 17-23, a Pelham resident reported that, “a black male teenager appeared to be sitting on the curb for an extended period of time, concerning them.” The young man sitting on the curb had left when an officer arrived.

On Facebook, this call prompted angry and aghast Pelhamites to post, questioning the legality of the situation and calling for an investigation of some kind. One user commented, “Awful.” Another remarked, “Would really like to hear what the ‘concern’ was.”

Several other blotters include reports involving race. One blotter from Monday, June 25, stated, “an African-American male was pacing back and forth outside of the door.” Again, the police found nothing at the scene.

These calls seem to have multiple characteristics in common. First of all, the caller specifically describes a black male. Moreover, the males described appear to be doing nothing wrong.

It is hard to ignore the fact that no calls about loitering people of other races mention skin color at all in the first six blotters the Examiner published. Naturally, we cannot assume all calls that happen to involve a black person mentioned race. However, when race has been mentioned, it has exclusively been of black men in those six blotters. (The latest Pelham Manor blotter, published Saturday after the Facebook discussion, references “a white male in a light blue dress shirt, blue tie and carrying a large empty target shopping bag” loitering around CVS.)

This kind of trend can be concerning. As a citizen of Pelham, what is one to think? Should we assume the police are racist? Should we assume the callers are racist?

The police are not at fault in these cases. It is the right of the police to investigate a public street. Similar police stops have been stamped as potential violations of the Fourth Amendment, but these situations do not qualify, as there was no actual police intrusion.

“It is not illegal for police to investigate a claim of loitering, even if it is racially motivated,” said Jamal Greene, the Dwight Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. “It would only become a Fourth Amendment issue if the police actually conducted a search or seizure.”

That leaves the caller. The official record of calls to the police station quotes the callers themselves. Simply put, the callers chose to reveal the teenager’s race for an unknown reason. It is easy to point fingers and label them racists.

However, we must find a better way of addressing race.

Race is an issue in Pelham that is not often confronted. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that as of July 1, 2017, Pelham was 66 percent white and only 12 percent black or African American. In other words, Pelham is not exceptionally diverse—not by any stretch.

Our neighboring towns, on the other hand, are different. Also according to the Census Bureau, Mount Vernon is 65 percent black or African American and 24 percent white. Similarly, Yonkers and New Rochelle both hold significantly higher percentages of black or African American and Hispanic or Latino people than Pelham. 

Therefore, race is a topic we cannot ignore. We, as a town, must find a better way of addressing it.

Facebook has yielded the greatest response to this incident—and has been the main discussion platform for many articles from the Pelham Examiner thus far. Although we at the Examiner appreciate any dialogue about our reporting, this situation merits something more. Closed Facebook groups can be exclusionary. Often members are in agreement about an issue, and no productive conversation occurs.

Pointing fingers is unproductive as well. Instead of worrying about how to make a change or manage a problem, people blame individuals for an issue.

Instead, we need a more inclusive way of communicating. As cliché as it sounds, open conversation is crucial if we want to deal with the problem of racism in Pelham. We need to become a town that does not shy away from an uncomfortable truth.

In the meantime, the Examiner will continue to publish the police blotters so that our readers can learn about the important things, like geese crossing the street and stopping traffic.