Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Two things happened within a couple days of each other that rammed the perennially touch and volatile issue of racial profiling back on the public table. The first was the mistaken arrest of actor Darris Love by the Glendale Police Department. Love was spread eagled, handcuffed on the ground at gunpoint, after a report of a robbery in the area. When the mistake was acknowledged, Love immediately screamed, “racial profiling!”
A couple of days later, Denver police officials announced that they would require all officers to fill out a lengthy sheet noting the race and circumstances of those they stopped. An actor and a police department all charging or acknowledging there is an issue with racial profiling. It’s been the elephant in the closet issue in the eternal debate over whether police target black and Hispanic men in street stops under the guise of fighting crime.
There’s no debate that police do stop tens of thousands of blacks and Hispanics every year on the streets and that they are far more likely to be stopped than white men. And when they stop them, there is the 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. That record becomes a Scarlet Letter for tens of thousands of blacks and Hispanics when seeking employment.
This is where the big debate begins. Denver police officials, as other police departments that have slapped on the hot seat and charged with racial profiling, hotly dispute the charge that they target blacks and Hispanics for unwarranted street and traffic stops. They claim it’s either good police work, and cite stats that show that the stops are a major reason for the plunge in crime in cities to the lowest level in decades. NYPD officials screamed this loudly when they were ordered to cease their infamous stop and frisk program by court order a few years back.
It’s an argument that gets much resonance since crime is way down. Streets are arguably safer. Most citizens and that include a significant number of black and Hispanic residents and community groups, silently and in some cases publicly, applaud police efforts to fight crime. They are more likely the victims of black on black and Hispanic on Hispanic crime and violence.
However, this dodges two glaring questions. One, is that the vast majority of these stops result in no arrests, or even citations. And no weapons or drugs are found. That was the case in New York, where only a small percentage of the persons stopped were arrested. So, then why so many stops are made to arrest so few if the stops are completely racial neutral? This question still dangles unanswered.
The other troubling question is why many of those who have been stopped have been prominent black and Latino professionals, business leaders, and even some state legislators and House representatives? This tosses the ugly glare back on the susceptibility of even celebrated black men to be hauled off when there’s even the slightest suspicion, mistaken or otherwise, of criminal wrongdoing. Former President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder said there were times in earlier days when they felt that he had been profiled by police.
Civil rights and civil liberties groups have in reports and public statements frequently called on police departments to immediately fire officers guilty of racial profiling. During the Obama White House years, the Justice Department initiated investigations of police departments in several cities for civil rights violations, mostly against young black and Latino males. It brokered consent decrees with city officials in several cities to rein in the blatant, and well documented abusive practices of police departments in those cities in those years.
Some years back former Michigan congressman John Conyers proposed a bill mandating the Justice Department compile figures from local police departments by race on highway traffic stops. The data would document why a driver was stopped and whether an arrest was made or not. The Justice Department could use the figures to determine how pervasive racial profiling was. The bill stayed still born in Congress during those years. There is no chance that anything even remotely close to that kind of legislation would be endorsed by Trump or the Session’s Justice Department or see the light of day in a GOP controlled congress.
Denver and other police departments that do collect racial stats on the stops they make will produce lots of numbers. However, it’s not the numbers but how those numbers are interpreted. They are just as likely to use them to make the case that the stops were needed to fight crime, and there was no racial harassment involved. It’s little likelihood that police officials will regard them as proof positive that police do systematically profile black and Hispanic men. That means only one thing. The eternal debate over whether the stops are racial profiling or good police work will continue to rage and so will the questions about why police need to stop so many black and Hispanic men to successfully fight crime.
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 an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.