An issue that stirs feelings, mostly bad

This Just In...

January 26, 2000|By DAN RODRICKS

I GET phone calls and mail from police officers. Usually, they want to enlighten me on how they do their jobs, the kind of problems they encounter, what they think needs to be done to reduce crime. Some want to knock the opinions that appear in this space. Rarely do they want to be quoted by name. ("I do my job well anonymously, as 99 percent of police do," one says. "The other 1 percent that mess up get their names in the paper.") This week, police have a lot to say about the matter of racial profiling in law enforcement -- "driving while black" -- and the Talmadge Branch incident, described in TJI on Monday.

A city officer, who asked that his name not be published, wrote: "The rudeness of the officer who stopped Delegate Branch was inexcusable. But did he really stop the delegate for `driving while black'? Or maybe it was because something was unusual.

"The delegate admittedly looks 10 years younger [than his 44]. He's operating an expensive car [Mercedes Benz] with state delegate tags. Would it have been acceptable had the officer politely stated he was checking on him because of the unusual situation?"

Let me pull over a minute and address that phrase, "unusual situation." What's unusual here? That Branch, a law-abiding, young-looking African-American male, was driving a Mercedes in the city at 11 o'clock on a June night? That Branch was driving a car with tags that indicated he was an elected official?

It seems to me that this is the kind of racial profiling that irritates African-Americans.

But back to the letter: "Many good arrests happen because an officer senses something unusual, out of the ordinary. Given good intentions, professional behavior and an ability to verbalize the `out of place' event as it relates to crime, should this [kind of] stop ever occur? Personally I would welcome an officer fitting that description stopping and checking on me and my vehicle."

Another officer, also asking that his name not be published, said there was no evidence to support the assertion that Branch was a "driving while black" victim. This officer said that, in five years of duty, he had never seen a House of Delegates tag on a car when the General Assembly was not in session in Annapolis. He did not know delegates were allowed to use them after the annual legislative session ends each spring. "It is a reasonable assumption," he said, "that the city officer [who stopped Branch] had no clue about it either."

That's the kind of leap a police officer is likely to make in defending the actions of a fellow officer. In his mind, the stop of Branch was thoroughly reasonable.

Branch, understandably, didn't see it that way. It was his third stop for dubious reasons. Three years ago, a city officer stopped him because he thought Branch had been driving a stolen car. Within the last year, officers in Baltimore County stopped him on the same suspicion. So by the time he got to the Fallsway on that June night last year, he was inclined to see the stop as unreasonable.

As I stated Monday, this is a complex and sensitive issue, stirring bad feelings all around, and revealing the wide gap that exists between whites and blacks when it comes to perceptions of justice.

The most insightful and troubling letter came from a man who described himself as "a police sergeant in the Baltimore metropolitan area." He wrote:

"I worked in a predominantly black area for the last two years as a patrol supervisor, and almost weekly I fielded complaints from black citizens who claimed they were stopped due to their race. On almost all of these complaints, which I investigated, I found the officers did have probable cause to stop the vehicles. ... I trust my officers. I have no reason not to. For eight years as a patrolman, I watched and listened in court as several of the violators I stopped lied to the judge and swore I wasn't telling the truth.

"What I have found the last two years is that good officers with a strong work ethic, ready to go out and make a difference by enforcing the laws of this state, have begun to get discouraged, tired of the endless media criticism, citizen complaints, departmental investigations. So they have stopped making traffic stops. They will only work when called to a 911 call. Why take a chance they will be sued or charged with a departmental violation for doing their job?

"Recently, I stopped a vehicle with expired tags. The vehicle had no insurance, and the driver's license was suspended. The driver, a black female, yelled continuously that I stopped her because she was black. I stopped her for only one reason -- because her tags were expired. ... As I listened to her berate me, I noticed across the street that another black female had begun videotaping this.

"Why should I bother doing my job, taking a violator that shouldn't have been driving off the street? Is it worth the suspicions? Is it worth the scrutiny? Thank God, I still say yes, and I still believe I am making a difference, and I hope I can encourage the officers working for me to do the same.

"But as the officers fall under more and more scrutiny and suspicion, and less appreciation, it will get harder and harder to motivate them and the streets will become less safe for the good citizens of this area."

I'm sure we haven't heard the end of this issue. It's likely headed for hearings in Annapolis this winter. Keep your seat belts fastened.

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