Officers confirm use of racial profiling

July 03, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

HERE'S THE SKINNY on racial profiling, the alleged police practice in which members of certain ethnic groups are targeted by law enforcement for no other reason than being a member of that ethnic group.

Rank-and-file law enforcers do use racial profiling, the assertions of police chiefs across the country to the contrary notwithstanding. Several officers spoke up in Jeffrey Goldberg's June 20 New York Times Magazine article "What Cops Talk About When They Talk About Race," and their comments were quite revealing. Americans of all political persuasions would do well to read Goldberg's article.

Here's a quote from Sgt. Mike Lewis of our own Maryland State Police: "They're going to let the NAACP tell us how to do traffic stops. That's what's happening. There may be a few troopers who make stops solely based on race, but this -- they're going to let these people tell us how to run our department. I say, to hell with it all. I don't care if the drugs go through. I don't."

With all due respect to Lewis and all other law enforcement officers who do their best to seize illegal dope, the truth is that no matter how large a quantity of drugs they confiscate, there's still enough that gets through to satisfy the needs of addicts. Lewis, according to Goldberg, said that before he moved to patrolling Maryland's highways, "95 percent of my drug arrests were dirt-ball-type whites." He's arrested only blacks smuggling drugs since moving to the interstates. But since there's a large quantity of drugs slipping past the cops, how do we know no white guys are smuggling drugs?

Here's a theory: As you read this, two little old white ladies in an '88 Chevy are moving huge caches of drugs down Interstate 95. They've never been stopped, nor will they be because they and the drug kingpin who hired them are geniuses and will retire in a few years.

This quote is from Mark Robinson, a black plainclothes cop with the Philadelphia Police Department:

"I have what you might call a profile. I pull up alongside a car with black males in it. Something don't match -- maybe the style of the car with the guys in it. We go from there." Robinson was later stopped in a Philly suburb by a white cop who claimed the inspection sticker on Robinson's car was too high on his windshield. Talk about what goes around coming around.

An article such as Goldberg's wouldn't have been complete without the pithy observation of someone from law enforcement in Los Angeles. Deputy Sheriff Bobby Harris of Los Angeles County didn't disappoint: "Racial profiling is a tool we use, and don't let anyone say otherwise. Like up in the valley, I knew who all the crack sellers were -- they look like Hispanics who should be cutting your lawn."

Do you get the feeling there aren't too many Hispanics working for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department? You have to figure Hispanics in the Los Angeles area can't feel too secure with the likes of Harris as a sheriff's deputy, what with his thinking that all Latinos can do is sell crack and mow lawns.

Sam Soehnel, another deputy sheriff for L.A. County, got in his 2 cents worth. He made this statement after he was called about a black man walking around lawns in a white neighborhood. It turned out the man worked for the electric company.

"You play the percentages. That's the way it works. People see a black guy, they think: `carjacker.' "

The news that most blacks work and help pay the taxes that allow Soehnel to have the job from which he makes such ignorant observations apparently hasn't reached him. You would think a deputy sheriff would have the cognitive abilities to realize that because 58 percent of carjackers are black does not mean that 58 percent of blacks carjack.

But Soehnel's quote is revealing and prompts some questions. Is he speaking for most whites when he says "people see a black guy, they think: `carjacker' "? What if that black guy happens to be a defendant in a courtroom? Do white jurors think "carjacker" -- as Soehnel assures us they will -- or do they think "innocent until proved guilty"?

Such is the problem with racial profiling, also called "rational discrimination" by some conservative wags. There have been numerous cases in recent months of black men -- some of whom were on death row -- being released from prison after further investigations or DNA tests proved them innocent. Perhaps what put them in prison or on death row in the first place was those oh-so-rational fears about black men and crime.

Pub Date: 7/03/99

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