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When racial profiling hits home

Through the rear-view mirror, I watch the first officer approach the driver's side of my pulled-over car, his left hand straddling the bulging holster strapped to his hip. From the moment of being jolted by the shrieking sirens and alternating lights careening toward me, the usual barrage of questions and anxieties has been running through my head. Usual, that is, for a young African-American male like myself. Since I'd been driving well within the speed limit, why was I being stopped? Were these two white officers--like the ones I'd encountered while spending a portion of my childhood in a predominantly Italian enclave of Bloomfield, N.J.--looking to harass me or brutalize me just because they could? And, most important, would I make it home alive?

My eyes quickly dart from the rear-view to the side mirror as the officer closes in. Behind him, the second officer positions himself just off the driver's-side rear wheel, his left hand similarly placed, his eyes glued to the back of my head.

Knowing not to move too quickly, I slowly roll down my window.

"License and registration, please," instructs the pie-faced officer, sticking his head at an angle toward my window. Bending at the waist, the lower portion of his body remains close to my rear door. His hand stays attached to his hip. I know that passersby in this predominantly white suburb of Philadelphia must have the impression that these officers are about to apprehend a dangerous, and likely armed, suspect.

Slowly reaching into the breast pocket of my blue pinstripe suit, I pull out a dangerously black billfold (dangerous for me, given my color and the color of most guns), and fumble for my license and registration before handing it to the waiting officer.

"Is there a reason why you pulled me over, officer?" I ask.

After carefully perusing the documents and disregarding my inquiry, Officer Pie-Face instructs me to "Step outside the vehicle, sir."

Still not knowing why I've been stopped in the first place--and still wondering if I'm going to make it back to the apartment I share with my fiancée--I cautiously step out of the black Ford hatchback I'd bought a year prior while living in a suburb of Chicago. Since I've recently relocated to Pennsylvania, it still bears out-of-state plates. Apparently, combined with my skin's hue, this makes me twice as suspicious. Officer Pie-Face commands me: "Turn and face the vehicle and place your hands on the roof." As soon as I comply, he closes in on my left side while his partner, Officer No-Speak, leaves his post and approaches my right. Within seconds I feel multiple hands groping and patting various parts of my anatomy within the outstretched wings of my suit-jacket. I can turn my head just enough to make eye-contact with the wide-eyed and mostly white people staring back at me from the safe confines of their own cars. Some of them, I know, will be my co-workers, since I've been stopped during rush hour on a busy strip not more than a mile away from the large auto insurance company where I work.

Finally, after what seems like an eternity, Officer Pie-Face pats me on the shoulder, returns my documents and tells me I'm "free to go." As I straighten out my suit and put the wallet back in my pocket, he blandly informs me that I "fit the description of a car thief in the area." He then tells me to "have a nice day," and turns to walk back to his white squad car.

But before I can get my door open, I hear Officer Pie-Face's voice once again. "Oh, by the way, you're not carrying any drugs in your car--are you, sir?" He and Officer No-Speak eye the closed hatch of my vehicle.

"No", I respond with incredulity, almost forgetting that there is no right answer to this particular multiple-choice quiz. I already know what the next test question will be.

"Do you mind if we search your vehicle?" says Officer Pie-Face, in a style more rhetorical than inquisitive.

Knowing that saying "Yes, I mind," would be asking for trouble, I consent. At least this way, I hope they will toss a few personal objects around before growing tired of messing with me and seeking out the nearest doughnut joint.

Ten minutes later, I am back on the road heading toward my apartment. My car and clothing are still intact. My pride is less so. And as always, I continue to check my rear-view mirror to see what's gaining from behind.

Such accounts of racial profiling--the police practice of targeting minorities for stops and searches based upon their race or ethnicity--are anything but uncommon. According to a national Gallup Poll taken in the fall, 72 percent of black men surveyed between the ages of 18 and 34 felt they had been victims of racial profiling on at least one occasion. Sixty percent of the black males between the ages of 35 and 49 felt similarly. Of the 1,000 black male and female drivers surveyed, 77 percent believed that the practice of racial profiling by police is widespread. Fifty-six percent of the 2,000 whites polled agreed.

"This is an old, sick phenomenon with a new name," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson at a rally outside of Operation PUSH's Chicago headquarters in March. The rally was held in support of the five white police officers from the Chicago suburb of Highland Park who last fall filed a suit against their department for targeting minority drivers. "It used to be called just racism," Jackson continued. "Now they dress it up and call it racial profiling."

Here in North Carolina, that sick law-enforcement practice appears to be alive and well. "There is no question that racial profiling exists in North Carolina," says Deborah Ross, executive director of the state's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The organization receives "dozens of complaints" each year, Ross says, from drivers who believe they've been improperly stopped and searched. "It would be statistically impossible to justify the disproportionate number of stops and searches of African-Americans and Latinos," she says, "as compared to their representation in the population."

Last year, North Carolina became the first state to pass "Driving While Black" legislation. State troopers (though not local police officers) are now required to record the race, age and gender of the people they pull over. The legislation was inspired by a 1996 News & Observer investigation which revealed that state troopers on the Highway Patrol's Special Emphasis Team, a drug unit, ticketed black men for minor traffic offenses at nearly twice the rate of other troopers.

The N&O report had been prompted by an ACLU case earlier in 1996 that cost the N.C. Highway Patrol $4,500 to settle. A black man from Maryland, his brother and a cousin were stopped on Interstate 85 near Greensboro while, according to the ticket, going precisely 55 in a 55-mph zone. Their rental car and persons were searched without their consent for two hours while they were detained on the roadside in 46-degree weather. The driver was eventually ticketed for not having a valid North Carolina driver's license, even though he possessed a valid license from his home state.

"If you work in the black community, folks will tell you all about racial profiling," says Sen. Frank Ballance, sponsor of North Carolina's pioneering legislation. "I thought it would be a good idea to gather the statistics to see if they backed up the complaints."

So far, Ballance feels it's "too early to tell" whether the statistics will verify perceptions of racial profiling, since the law only took effect on Jan. 1 of this year. Data from the first four months showed blacks making up 23 percent of those pulled over by the Highway Patrol, a rate that roughly mirrors the African-American population in the state. However, Ballance points out that there is "concern over what appears to be the disproportionate number of African-Americans being searched." Statistics from the same four months revealed that black people in North Carolina were nearly twice as likely to have their vehicles and their person searched for drugs by a state trooper, once they'd been pulled over. This occurred despite the fact that, according to the U.S. Public Health Service, African-Americans make up only 14 percent of the nation's illicit drug users--nearly the same as their representation in the general U.S. population.

"Apparently, some officers have persuaded themselves that young black males are more prone to drug-trafficking than other groups," says Ballance. "And that's just not true."

According to Renee Hoffman, spokesperson for the N.C. Highway Patrol, "It's not like our troopers say, 'There's a black male driving a Lexus--I'm going to go pull him over.' " Hoffman stresses that, in addition to requiring all troopers to undergo cultural diversity and sensitivity training, "North Carolina law requires that there has to be a reason for an officer to pull someone over. In order to have a search, the officer has to believe there is something there to be found."

But when blacks are twice as likely to be searched, the state's own statistics would appear to indicate that many of the officers' "beliefs" are unfounded. Questions have also been raised about the fact that the troopers are responsible for collecting the data about their own traffic stops. What's to stop an officer from falsely reporting the race of a motorist for the sake of low-balling racial disparities?

"Nothing but their own integrity and the fear of being fired if caught," says Ballance.

"I would be shocked if any officer would ever do something that blatantly dishonest," says Hoffman. After acknowledging that all organizations have at least one "bad apple," she argues that "it would not be worth that officer's career and reputation to do that. That would be stupid."

Even so, Ballance is trying to further increase the public scrutiny of police officers. He has crafted a bill that would amend the current profiling law by requiring troopers to provide additional information on traffic stops, including their precise location, time and date, and the identity of the officer; right now, records do not allow racially biased officers to be identified. Senate Bill 1282, which did not come to a vote during this summer's short legislative session, will be reintroduced at the start of the next legislative session.

Ross thinks the bill would be "great" if passed. "We will be able to see if these disproportionate practices can be attributed to one or more troopers, and to particular areas of the state."

While he acknowledges that the bills won't eliminate racial profiling in North Carolina--or the "old, sick phenomenon" of racism underlying it--Ballance feels that the real impact of such racial-profiling laws lie in the increased accountability of the public servants who enforce them.

"When you pull the covers back, you take away the shield of anonymity," he says, noting that the current process should play a significant role in "abating the problem. The passage of such laws are bound to have an ameliorating effect on the practice of law enforcement"--at least on the state level.

The episode near Philadelphia was not the first or the last time I was racially profiled by police. Less than a year afterward, in fact, I was pulled over a block away from my parents' house in my predominantly black hometown of Orange, N.J. I was driving my fiancée's new car with out-of-town dealer plates (car dealer, not drug dealer). Again, I was frisked by two white officers--this time on "suspicion of a stolen vehicle"--and asked if I had any drugs on me. And again, I was let go after a search without receiving any kind of citation.

Which, in a way, made things worse. If I had been given a ticket or been roughed up physically, at least I would have had something tangible to fight. Not that the harassment I suffered couldn't be challenged, but I saw little hope in waging a battle that would likely end in a "your word against the cops'" scenario. And this frustrated me to no end.

When I got to my parents' house and told the story, my mother, a lawyer and a Catholic, was torn between calling the attorney general and the pope. "Just let it go, Mom," I quietly told her. She continued to insist, as any good mother would, that something had to be done. Becoming slightly annoyed, I tersely responded: "I'm alive, I'm here, just let it go." When she persisted, I turned to her in frustration and shouted, "I'm a black man, Mom. What the hell do you expect?!?"

I'm sure I'll never forget the pained look in my mother's eyes at that moment. I'm even more certain she'll never forget the look in mine. EndBlock

  • What happens when racial profiling hits home? Ask just about any black man in America.

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