After the memo

Fallout: A controversial police memo should lead to conversations about more than racial profiling.

March 22, 2002

WHAT MORE is there to say? A white police commander directs his officers -- in writing, astoundingly -- to stop every black man near a Northeast Baltimore bus stop in an attempt to catch a rapist.

Within hours of the memo's disclosure on a radio talk show, the police chief investigates, deplores the order as intolerable and illegal and summons the commander, who promptly retires.

Done. Dealt with. Over.

What more is there to say? Plenty. More to say and more to ask. About race and the conversations that don't take place because of it.

The memo couldn't have been plainer. And it brought to mind but one phrase. "Racial profiling" was again at the center of a public debate.

The issue is not new to Baltimore or the country. It raised concerns here in 2000, when a new mayor and police commissioner, both white, trumpeted a "zero tolerance" stance on combating crime.

No crime was too petty to warrant a stop, a look-see from the cop on patrol. Many African-Americans feared, and understandably so, that they would be unfairly targeted.

Despite police measures to police their own, the perception persists.

Then comes the Northeast memo, issued Feb. 22 by Maj. Donald E. Healy, a 29-year veteran of the force.

It can't be dismissed solely as one individual's bad judgment or incredibly stupid mistake.

Northeast Baltimore residents, largely African-American and middle-class, had been clamoring for a stronger level of policing in the district. There had been three rapes in the area, and the latest victim had described her assailant as a 5-foot-10, 185-pound black male. The likely intent of the police memo was to catch a suspect.

The directive was read out at each of the three shift changes in the station house for 12 days before it hit the airwaves. Surely others found the order offensive and, more to the point, ineffectual. A surveillance of the bus stop, or a sting operation, perhaps -- but stopping every black male in the area?

You don't have to be Detective Andy Sipowicz to figure that one out. Yet no one raised an objection or suggested to the boss that he rethink the directive.

Why? Because officers saw nothing wrong with it, or because they were afraid to challenge a superior? Either scenario is unacceptable in a city where too many African-Americans mistrust the police and the police chief is committed to fighting crime with a professional force and 21st century tools.

But honest discussions about race are hard to come by in this town, whether they are about our segregated lives, our schools, the communities in which we live here and beyond the city line -- or a police memo.

Whites are branded racists for questioning whether the 29-year career of a police commander should be shelved for an egregiously stupid mistake.

Blacks who appreciate the drive to find the rapist open themselves to the charge of being "Uncle Toms." African-American officials who pushed for swift action are accused of caring more about "political correctness" than solving crime.

The disclosure of the memo by a radio talk-show host who has railed about "the bleaching of Baltimore" -- former state Sen. Larry Young -- and the political fallout that followed left little room for thoughtful reflection or considered deliberation about the intent of the memo or the circumstances surrounding it.

Which raises the question of whether any other outcome was possible or warranted. Lost in the flap is the rape victim and efforts to catch her attacker.

Make no mistake, racial profiling is unacceptable. Period. But sensitivities about race should not preclude frank discussions about its impact on our lives.

Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris says that if the memo had hit his desk first, the outcome would have likely been the same: "I think my record is pretty clear. We have no tolerance for this stuff."

But he, too, recognizes the weight of race in this city. He has ordered a new round of training for commanders and 50 supervisors.

The order of business will be instruction on racial profiling, professionalism and traffic stops. But the harder work that needs to be done involves more than the men and women in blue. It involves every one of us.

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