It's known as "racial profiling," pulling motorists over for "driving while black or brown." Police departments vehemently deny that it's their practice or their policy. And maybe you think it doesn't happen.
I was skeptical too. But now I've talked to too many blacks and Hispanics who've been pulled over and asked questions about how they came to be driving a late model car, or simply been asked to show identification for no real reason.
Last July, Sheryl Crayton, Alotha Willis and Wayne Person were driving along a Los Angeles street, heading for lunch in Crayton's late model Volvo when they heard sirens behind them, so they pulled over and stopped. A voice boomed through a loudspeaker ordering them to raise their hands and exit the car, something that was difficult to do since they were all carefully buckled into their seatbelts. As they got out, they say, guns pointed at them and they heard a helicopter hovering overhead. They were ordered to lie face down on the pavement, handcuffed and made to wait while the police traced Crayton's license plate, only to find that the one digit discrepancy between her plate and the number on her registration was due to a mistake by the department of motor vehicles.
Police never apologized, but simply told them they thought the car might have been stolen. Crayton and Willis and Person say they were never told why the license plate was run in the first place, though police now claim Crayton made an illegal turn. If so, she didn't get a ticket for it.
Sheryl Crayton is a school administrator. Wayne Person is a Naval Procurement official from Portsmouth, Virginia, where his wife, Alotha Willis, is a family court judge. All three have always had a healthy respect for law enforcement. Now they have a decided queasiness about it. And they are certain that they were treated differently than whites would have been under similar circumstances. Crayton says, "Black people are stopped for no reason...I didn't think it would happen to me because I'm a mature African American, you know."
The Los Angeles Police Department insists that it does not engage in racial profiling. Commander David Kalish emphatically states, "When you look at our law enforcement efforts, they're clearly color blind." And he also sys officers had legitimate reason to fear that the trio in the car could be violent, since they thought they had what's known in police jargon as "cold plates on a hot car," tags stolen from one car and put on another stolen car.
Police advocates like John Fotis of the Law Enforcement Alliance of America argue that most police officers are just trying to do their difficult jobs under stressful circumstances. And he thinks that the problem is more one of perception than reality. Because of the racial issues that complicate American society as a whole, minorities tend to feel singled out when whites might be treated in exactly the same manner. Fotis says, "if we put a black cloud over the heads of good police that are out there, and paint police with a broad brush that they are racist...what that does is it causes police to be very nervous and possibly not do the job they should be doing."
And indeed when you hear about incidents like the one in which a Virginia police officer was shot and killed trying to stop a robbery, you understand how many valiant officers put their lives on the line to keep us safe every single day.
But there are so many cases these days where race seems to be an issue in police work. The New Jersey State Police are under investigation for using racial profiles to determine which drivers to pull over on state highways. And questions of police bias range far beyond traffic stops. Images of the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police have been seared into the public consciousness. New York police are now on trial in the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man who was shot 41 times in the mistaken belief that he was a rape suspect and that he was reaching for a gun.
So how often is racism really a factor and how to separate perception from reality? In an effort to get a better understanding of the situation, Connecticut has just passed a new law requiring all state and local police forces to record the race of anyone pulled over in a traffic stop.
In the city of Stamford, where the local government as well as the police union have enthusiastically welcomed the new law, Mayor Dannell Malloy says, "If you find a police officer who has...disproportionately stopped people of one race or another without subsequently pressing charges against them for motor vehicle or criminal behavior, more likely than not you have someone who's engaging in racial profiling."
But other police departments, including the one in Los Angeles, have rejected the idea of recording the race of everyone stopped by police. Commander Kalish says that "just by capturing the ethnicity of the person you stop, what does that information signify? It can mean anything to anybody." True enough. But it would also produce some numbers to analyze and discuss. And if much of this issue is about perception and reality, making the effort to find out who is stopped might give minority citizes an important sense that their concerns about racial profiling are being taken seriously.