Two things happened within a couple days of each other that brought the volatile issue of racial profiling back into the public discussion.
The first was the mistaken arrest of actor Darris Love by the Glendale Police Department. Love was spread out on the ground at gunpoint and handcuffed after a report of a robbery in the area. When the mistake was acknowledged, Love immediately claimed it was a case of racial profiling.
A couple of days later, Denver police officials announced that they were requiring all officers to fill out a lengthy sheet noting the race and circumstances of those they stopped.
There’s no debate that police stop tens of thousands of blacks and Hispanics every year, and that those people are far more likely to be stopped than white men and women. Further, when police stop black and brown people, there is a strong possibility of arrest and being charged with some offense. If the case goes to court and they are found guilty, that invariably means a criminal record. Then that record becomes a Scarlet Letter for untold numbers of people when seeking employment.
This is where the big debate begins. Denver officials, as other police departments that have been charged with racial profiling, dispute claims they target blacks and Hispanics with unwarranted traffic stops. They say it’s just good police work and cite statistics that show the stops are a major reason for the plunge in crime. NYPD officials screamed this loudly when they were ordered by a federal judge to cease their infamous stop and frisk program a few years back.
It’s an argument with much resonance since crime really is way down. Streets are arguably safer. Most citizens, including a significant number of black and Hispanic residents who are victims of crime, applaud police efforts.
However, this dodges two glaring facts: One, the vast majority of these stops result in no arrests or citations being issued; and two, no weapons or drugs are found in these stops. That was the case in New York, where only a small percentage of the persons stopped were arrested and charged. Why are so many stops being made to arrest so few if those stops are completely race neutral? This question remains unanswered.
The other troubling question is why many of those who have been stopped have been prominent black and Latino professionals, business leaders, even some state and federal lawmakers? This puts the spotlight back on the susceptibility of even celebrated black people to being hauled off when there’s even the slightest suspicion of criminal wrongdoing.
Some years back, former Michigan Congressman John Conyers proposed a bill mandating the US Justice Department compile figures on traffic stops by race. The data was intended to determine why a driver was stopped and whether an arrest had been made. The Justice Department could use those figures to see how pervasive racial profiling was. But the bill never made it through Congress in those years. And today, there is no chance that anything even remotely close to this kind of legislation would be signed into law.
Denver and other police departments that collect racial stats on stops they make will produce lots of numbers. However, it is how those figures are interpreted that matters most. Police are just as likely to use those statistics to claim the stops were needed to fight crime, and that there was no racial harassment involved, meaning the debate over whether these stops are a form of racial profiling will continue, just as questions will persist about why police need to stop so many black and Hispanic men to successfully fight crime. (Please see a related story on page 7.)
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of the forthcoming “Why Black Lives Do Matter (Middle Passage Press). He is also an associate editor of New America Media, a weekly co-host of “The Al Sharpton Show” on Radio One, and host of the weekly “Hutchinson Report” on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.