Run! It's the Cops!: Police: Protector or Enemy in High Crime Neighborhoods

By Slade, David C. | The World and I, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Run! It's the Cops!: Police: Protector or Enemy in High Crime Neighborhoods


Slade, David C., The World and I


Sam Wardlow, a "middle-aged African-American male," wasn't breaking any laws. He was just standing in front of a building in Chicago holding a white bag. True, the neighborhood that Wardlow lived in was a "high crime area" where illegal handguns are common and narcotics often sold, but Wardlow was just standing still, minding his own business, holding a white bag. That is, until he looked up and saw a police cruiser coming in his direction, at which point he took off running "at top speed." The cop in the cruiser, Officer Nolan, later testified that he didn't see Wardlow breaking any laws or regulations, but nonetheless, when Wardlow took off running Nolan gave chase. Nolan eventually apprehended Wardlow, gave him a "pat down" search, and squeezed the white bag Wardlow was holding. Nolan felt what he thought was a gun, and sure enough, when Nolan looked inside the bag he saw a Colt. 38 with five live bullets. Nolan arrested Wardlow and confiscated the gun. Wardlow was charged with unlawful use of a weapon.

At trial, Wardlow filed a motion to suppress physical evidence (the gun) on the ground that the gun was unlawfully seized by Officer Nolan, in violation of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizures. Wardlow's attorney argued that an individual standing in front of a building--violating no city, state, or federal law--who runs at the sight of a cop car does not justify the police in temporarily detaining and frisking that person. Running, after all, is constitutionally protected behavior, and the exercise of a constitutional right may not by itself provide the basis for police detaining and frisking a person. The only time that a warrantless search and seizure is permitted (commonly known as a Terry search, after the U.S. Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio) is when there are "specific and articulable facts" that clearly suggest that the suspect has committed, or is about to commit, a crime, thus justifying a warrantless search and seizure of the suspect. Unconvinced, the trial judge denied the motion, noting that when someone runs at the sight of a police officer "there's reason to think there's a problem." Quoting a Wisconsin Supreme Court case, the trial judge concluded: "Flight at the sight of police is undeniably suspicious behavior."

Or is it? That is the key question in this case, State of Illinois v. Wardlow, before the U.S. Supreme Court. Should running from police in "high crime areas" be viewed differently from running from police in "low crime areas"? If so, are there various shades of Fourth Amendment protections throughout the country, depending upon which neighborhood you live in?

The NAACP, the ACLU, and other organizations argue in their friend-of- the-court briefs that there are many justifiable reasons why an African-American male would run at the sight of police. Police harassment, mistreatment, and even physical abuse of law-abiding minority citizens, these groups point out, is sufficiently high that trying to avoid police contact is not an indicator of criminal conduct. Documented cases of police abuse are most serious in precisely those areas--high crime areas--where police are quick to presume guilt. For example, antidrug police task forces in Dayton, Ohio, evoked tremendous "fear and anger in the black community of Dayton" when many innocent people were detained in "drug sweeps." In the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, the police were directed to "search on sight all known gang members and their associates. …

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