Problem of mistrust

April 29, 2001

IN CINCINNATI, black folks rioted after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man. And in Baltimore, a mainly African-American jury acquitted a black teen-ager who crashed into a patrol car, killing a police officer.

There is a war going on, people said during the 1960s, referring to race relations.

Now, in the new century, there is a profound mistrust -- bordering on hate -- between some African-Americans and some of our nation's police departments. It is sad, but true. Many blacks do not view the police as their friends.

The friction between police officers and the black community is not new. In fact, this long-festering problem was documented 34 years ago by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known the Kerner Commission.

President Lyndon B. Johnson created the commission to study racial disorders in 23 urban areas during the "long, hot summer" of 1967. The commission's basic conclusion was "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal."

A post-mortem of the riots also showed that the "abrasive relationship" between the police and minority communities was an "explosive" source of "grievance, tension and disorder."

The commission also noted the dilemma caused by the use of tough law-and-order police tactics to reduce crime in black neighborhoods.

"The police are faced with demands for increased protection and service in the ghetto. Yet the aggressive patrol practices thought necessary to meet these demands themselves create tension and hostility," the commission concluded.

Earlier this month, a white Cincinnati policeman shot an unarmed black man, touching off three days of protest and vandalism. His death became part of a troubling pattern -- he was the 15th black man to be killed by Cincinnati police in six years. No whites were killed by police during that time.

Cincinnati was one of the cities hit by racial disorders in 1967 and its problems were chronicled in the commission's report released in March 1968.

In 1967, rioting broke out in Cincinnati after the arrest of a black man who was protesting the murder conviction of his cousin. Many blacks saw the arrest as another example of selective enforcement of the city's anti-loitering law. "Between January, 1966, and June, 1967, 170 of some 240 persons arrested under the ordinance were Negro," the commission's report noted.

Another pattern developed as rioters were arrested. The police charged most of the whites with disorderly conduct, which carried a maximum sentence of 30 days in jail and a $100 fine. Many blacks were charged with violation of the Riot Act -- punishable by one year in jail and a $500 fine.

Unfortunately, the racial animosity between the black community and police officers works both ways.

If you are a cop in an urban area with a large minority population -- such as Baltimore or Cincinnati -- you're bound to be more suspicious of African-Americans. It's your job to catch criminals, and blacks commit more of certain kinds of crimes than non-blacks.

"Of course we do racial profiling at the train station," Gary McLhinney, the president of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police, explained in a New York Times magazine article that appeared on June 20, 1999. "If 20 people get off the train and 19 are white guys in suits and one is a black female, guess who gets followed? If racial profiling is intuition and experience, I guess we all racial-profile."

Ironically, then-Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said this in the same article: "To say that being of any particular race makes you a suspect in a particular type of crime is just wrong, and it's not done in Baltimore."

Yeah, right. That's one reason African-American jurors are becoming increasingly suspicious of police. Because the cops lie sometimes. And that played a heavy role in the decision made by a Baltimore jury on Jan. 19.

Cautious jurors

The jury deliberated about four hours before clearing Eric D. Stennett of murder, attempted murder and vehicular manslaughter, even though his own lawyer admitted that Stennett was driving the speeding Ford Bronco that killed Officer Kevon M. Gavin.

Prosecutors argued that police saw Stennett shoot into a crowd in Southwest Baltimore and drive away in a Ford Bronco. Clad in body armor and with a 10 mm semiautomatic handgun on the seat, Stennett took police on a high-speed chase that ended when he rammed Gavin's cruiser, the prosecutors charged.

During the trial, it came out that a police officer who witnessed the crash originally wrote a report that said Stennett had "lost control" of his vehicle and it "veered" into Gavin's cruiser.

To be convicted of murder, however, the defendant must be proven to have had the intent to kill. Several days later the officer amended his report to say that Stennett "did not attempt to slow down or stop," and could have avoided Officer Gavin's car, but instead deliberately ran into it.

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