Racial profiling is too often looked upon as a minor nuisance but not as a form of victimization.
A federal judge ruled Monday that the stop-and-frisk tactics of the New York Police Department violated the constitutional rights of minorities in the city. U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin said police had relied on what she called a “policy of indirect racial profiling” that led officers to routinely stop “Blacks and Hispanics who would not have been stopped if they were White.”
Since 2002, the police department has conducted more than five million stops-and-frisks. The police department’s own reports show that nearly nine out of 10 New Yorkers stopped and frisked have been innocent – yes, good people, that comes out to approximately 4.5 million innocent people stopped out of about five million.
This decision may pertain more specifically to New York’s policy, but once again, it highlights the issue of racial profiling that plagues our nation.
It’s about the Benjamins
Racial profiling poses several problems. First, there is an economic aspect to consider. The disproportionate amount of tickets given to people of color represents hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue each year. Also, Black and Hispanic drivers, because of this excessive ticketing, have to pay thousands more in auto insurance costs than their White counterparts.
This dynamic leads us to this question: Is it fair that communities and insurance companies benefit from this prejudiced and unfair practice in our police departments and law enforcement agencies? This economic impact isn’t just about auto insurance, however. As background checks for employment have become even more stringent, the hint of any criminal wrongdoing can become the disqualifier that locks that innocent person of color out of a job that they may be imminently qualified for.
It was just last week that the New York Police Department was compelled to clear the names of those cleared or found not guilty of any crime from NYPD database. In a settlement with the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York City Police Department agreed to stop storing the names of people who were arrested or issued a summons after being stopped and frisked — and later cleared of any criminal wrongdoing. For years, police have used the database to target New Yorkers for criminal investigations, even though it includes people who were victims of unjustified police stops.
Bad policy results in mistreatment
It should be abundantly clear that racial profiling is inconsistent with true law enforcement. Honest citizens in any society or community want good law enforcement. Drunk driving, carrying unregistered weapons or illegal drugs, etc., shouldn’t be tolerated. With that being said, the numbers suggest that law enforcement officers nationwide are misguided in their efforts.
According to statistics compiled from 1999-2004 – around the beginning of Mayor Bloomberg’s “stop-and-frisk” program – by the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the U.S. Department of Justice, Whites were twice more likely than Blacks and other people of color to drive drunk, represented approximately 66 percent of those arrested for illegal possession of weapons and were more than 30 percent likely to sell drugs than any minority group. Black youths, however, were 48 times more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses than Whites.
What these statistics indicate is that if the premise for the extreme number of traffic stops and searches conducted against people of color is to enforce the law, then law enforcement officers nationwide are disproportionately engaging in bad law enforcement practices – from 2003 to 2011, stops-and-frisks increased by 600 percent. All part of the Bloomberg legacy.
Last, there is also a negative psychological and social impact that racial profiling has upon a people. The American Civil Liberties Union placed an advertisement in U.S. magazines a number of years ago that stated: “The man on the left is 75 times more likely to be stopped by the police while driving than the man on the right.” The man pictured on the left was Martin Luther King Jr.; on the right was a photo of Charles Manson.
We rarely view people who have been victims of racial profiling as such — as victims, that is. It is often looked upon as an inconvenience or a minor nuisance (in the same way our male-dominated society tends to view sexual harassment) but not as victimization. It deteriorates the confidence that all citizens should be able to have in those who have taken an oath to “serve and protect.” Another consequence of racial profiling is the label of “guilty” that it stamps on its victims.
If scores of people of color are continually pulled over and searched by the police, society begins to think, consciously or otherwise, “There must be something to it; where there’s smoke, there’s fire” — even when the actual statistics clearly contradict this presumption.
Sometimes we hear numbers and percentage points so much that we forget that behind each unjustified percentage point is a story of someone’s pain, humiliation and emotional scarring. This is why we can’t allow our mayors and police chiefs across America to “explain away” this problem in law enforcement. And that’s exactly why this issue is personal for me.
Yes, it’s personal
One spring night a few years ago, I was a victim of racial profiling. It wasn’t the first time, but it was and remains the most memorable.
To make a long story short, the New Bedford police officer abruptly backpedaled, as if from disbelief, when I informed him I was a New Bedford High School teacher and that my wife and I had moved there to help make an impact on the youth in that community. My wife, who was over eight months into her pregnancy at the time, was with me — at one point one of the police officers threatened to send my wife home alone and me to jail — through this ordeal that lasted more than 30 minutes. And guess what, folks? No ticket. To this day, my wife says she marvels at how much calm I showed throughout the incident.
Well I guess I saved my feelings for when we had arrived safely home. All the emotion that I had held in burst out in a flood of tears. I dropped to my knees and wrapped my arms around my wife’s waist and talked to our soon-to-be born son, as I wondered what he would face — as I wondered how he would be viewed.
Part two of this difficult journey occurred the following day. It seems that a number of my students had seen the encounter the night before (these students being Hispanic and Black males). They wanted to know what happened, and I told them.
What I saw in their eyes was painful. I saw that even though they were considerably younger than I, they understood the frustration; they understood the humiliation and yes, they understood the injustice.
I also saw in their eyes a struggle. It was if they were saying, “If they treated you this, way what about us? Mr. Rhymes, they tell us to be good citizens, they tell us to be good people. They tell us to get an education and we will be respected, but no matter how innocent, accomplished or careful we are, skin color, Mr. Rhymes, overrides everything.”
And I, who was an educator of children of every hue and ethnicity, tried my best to respond to the questions they were struggling to answer. I told those young men that maybe they could change what earlier generations couldn’t. I told them that injustice should never cause them to stop believing in the ultimate good in fighting for justice.
As I said before, that was not my first encounter with that type of profiling; nor would it be my last, but it was by far my most memorable. I am not suggesting that every law enforcement officer has racial profiling on the brain, but it is a problem – I would even have to say it is an epidemic. And just like drunk driving, it most certainly is not all the drivers, but those who are can produce painful, traumatic and even deadly results.
Judge Scheidlin’s decision will more than likely be placed alongside the recent Zimmerman verdict – and it should. The argument that has been consistently been made by the pro-racial profiling side is that it targets criminals and those innocent have nothing to fear.
Tell that to the PhDs, the educators, the scientists, the hard-working husbands and fathers who have been unjustly targeted and shamefully humiliated. As a matter a fact, tell that to the New York Police Department three-star police chief – the highest ranking Black uniformed officer in the NYPD – who in May was profiled and harassed by his own department. (If you can’t tell him, maybe you can tell his wife, who happens to be the NYPD deputy commissioner for equal employment opportunity.)
We who have drank from this bitter cup know full well that what you look like matters more than what you have actually done. We know that presumption of innocence when it comes to Black and Brown American citizens is the presumption. I am over a decade removed from that aforementioned experience – which still evokes a deep emotional response from my wife – and I still don’t know whether my answer to the grasping, conflicted minds of those young men was good enough. What I do know, however, is that the “just get used to it” response of law enforcement and some of my fellow citizens is definitely not the right answer.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.