The Black List

Is Racial Profiling Legal?

In 1992, an elderly woman in Oneonta, N.Y, was assaulted in her bedroom. She didn't see the man's face, only his hand. With little to go on, the police decided that nearly every black man in town was a potential suspect, and set out to question them all.

Since Sept. 11, we've heard a good deal about the national dragnet for people from the Middle East - most sought not because of what they've done but because of who they are.

Part of the precedent for that can be traced to Oneonta. A federal appeals court ruled that what happened in that small town was constitutional. But there's more to the story of the blacklist than the federal judges were ever told. Scott Pelley reports.

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The crime was unusual for Oneonta, a quiet college town of just 15,000 in the Catskills. On Sept. 4, 1992, about 2 a.m., in a secluded neighborhood, a burglar with a knife attacked an elderly woman.

During the attack, the burglar told the woman to turn over. "At that point, I thought I didn't have much to lose, so in turning over I lurched," she said in her deposition. The man fell. And from the crime scene pictures, he apparently cut himself and ran into the night.

"It was pretty obvious that it was on his hand, and it was most likely on his thumb," says Karl Chandler, the New York State trooper in charge of the investigation.

Chandler had little to go on, just a glimpse of a black man's hand. He called in a police dog to pick up the suspect's trail. A trail that the police said headed to the state university at Oneonta. The police also started describing the man as young, with a cut on his hand. The college administration drew up a list of 78 black male students and handed it over to Chandler.

Chandler started generating leads, looking for injured hands.

Did he hesitate for a moment and think, "We just can't lay out a dragnet for every black man at the university?"

Chandler says that this method seemed like a good idea: "It was practical and it seemed to be a good lead." Over several days, police tracked the students and questioned them, checking their hands for cuts.

"It's not a good feeling to know that if someone commits a crime and they happen to be black, that I automtically become a suspect," says Ron Jennings, who was a junior.

Police argued that they weren’t arresting the people in the group. "They're playing with words," Jennings says. "You don't pull someone over in a car, ask them to step out of their vehicle, ask them to place their hands on the hood and they're gonna feel a sense of freedom that they can just walk away."

Chandler says he doesn't think that the black members of the community have a point when they say they don't like the way they were treated that week.

"They were not treated poorly," he says. "They were not treated disrespectfully. If they were looking for an old man with a shaved head, I would have no objections if they came and talked to me. I don't - I guess this is where I have a problem understanding it."

Jamel Champen says police stopped him three times. His sister Sheryl was stopped, too. She was a recruiter for the college. She says she was getting on a bus for New York City when the police told her, and other black women that they weren't going anywhere until they showed ID.

"When you look at how myself and other women were stopped, that's when they took it to another level. That's when I feel that they stopped looking for a criminal that created this crime. They used this as a opportunity to harass us, hoping that we'll pack up and leave," Sheryl says.

The search lasted several days. The police went door to door, pulled over African Americans driving through town and stopped them walking down the street. Some black men were stopped again and again over days as they were spotted by different officers.

Eventually, more than 65 people, including Sheryl Champen, filed suit. Their lawyer, Scott Fein claims that the police violated their right to equal protection and the right against unreasonable search and seizure.

Says Fein: "What happened here is the police officer said, 'I'm going to ask you questions because I think you did something wrong, because you're a black man. I think you did something wrong, because you're a black man.' Can't do that."

Did the police have enough evidence to justify the dragnet? "It is unlawful in this country to stop someone based upon their race," says Fein. "The police don't have to be blind to race. But rather, it has to be as it's described in the cases, race-plus. Race plus proximity to the crime. Race plus flight: running away. Race plus a distinctive tattoo. Race plus."

In 1999, a federal appeals court ruled that the police did have "race plus" in Oneonta. After all, the judges reasoned, the police said the man was young, had a cut on his hand and the dog followed the scent back to the college. The trouble is, we've obtained the police records from the investigation and they tell a story that is different from the one the judges heard.

The police record shows the victim told police, "I could only see his left hand. I am sure the hand was black." There is no other description.

"Never mentiond that he was cut. Never mentioned that he was young," says Fein.

The crime scene pictures taken that day show the victim was slightly injured in the scuffle with her attacker. But she says she never told police the intruder cut his hand.

In media accounts, the police began describing the suspect as a young, black male. Why? Chandler says she described him as having a young voice.

That was not in the signed statement. "My guess would be she told me that, and when I take statements, I don't put in - I did not put in speculation and things of this nature. I only put in what she could tell me and verify," says Chandler.

And then there's the dog. The state of New York told the court that the dog headed toward the college. But the official report of the dog handler says that the scent led to this intersection and turned away from the college. Chandler says the handler told him something different.

The federal judges never saw the official police reports. The reason they didn't see them has been the subject of a running battle. Attorney Scott Fein and the State of New York blame each other for failing to bring the records to the attention of the court of appeals.

But now armed with the reports, Fein is going back to the lower court to argue that the police based their dragnet on one thing alone - race.

In their sweep of the town, the police ultimately questioned most of Oneonta's black community; in the end, the criminal investigation went nowhere - no suspect was ever found. The case is closed, but for many, it is not forgotten.

"I felt I was no longer safe in Oneonta, that I've always had that false pretense, prior to this incident, that hey, if anything really happened I can call the police. You know, if I'm ever beat up by a group of whites that hate blacks, that I'll at least have the law on my side," says Sheryl. Afterwards, she says, she felt frightened of the police.

"I'm not a racist," says Chandler. "I don't have anything against black people. I don't wish to be rude or arrogant or anything else. I just wanna find out who did this - who committed this crime."

"People are looking at the wrong thing," says Jamel. "They're looking at, OK, we were stopped, we weren't detained very long, they just checked our hands and we - that's not the real issue here. The real issue is the idea of what they did. The idea of what they did is dangerous. The idea that they generated a list and systematically looked and searched for black males. The idea of that is what's scary because what's next?"

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