Is racial profiling a fact?

Posted: Apr 19, 2001 12:00 AM
The shooting of a 19-year-old black, unarmed man by a Cincinnati police officer brings the number to 15 -- 15 black males killed by the Cincinnati police since 1995. The latest death occurred on April 7, when a police officer chased and shot Timothy Thomas, a teenager wanted for 14 misdemeanor and traffic charges. The authorities placed the officer involved on administrative leave, and a grand jury is looking into the matter. Additionally, the Justice Department launched an investigation into allegations of "racial profiling." The shooting sparked four days of "unrest," with video images of black thugs pulling white motorists from their cars and beating them. Ken Lawson, a Cincinnati defense attorney who specializes in police brutality cases, said the rioting "gave whites a better understanding of what it feels like to be a random target of violence just because of the color of your skin." A "random target of violence"? Watchdog civil rights groups. ACLU. Consent decrees. Lawsuits. Widespread availability of video cameras. Increasingly assertive criminal defense bar. Aggressive media, spurred on by 24-hour cable. More rigorous screening of officers. Removal of bad cops. Improved oversight. Larger numbers of minority and female cops. This is not your father's police department. So how strong is the evidence of top-down, institutionalized "racial profiling" by today's police? Let's look at the "Cincinnati Fifteen." Out of the 15 males killed, six drew guns on officers; four threatened officers with other instruments; and one incident resulted in a Cincinnati officer killed with two others injured. The cases seem, if not all defensible, certainly far short of clear-cut cases of police brutality, racial profiling or "random targeting." A case-by-case examination does not support the accusation of an out-of-control, racist Cincinnati police force. But facts don't seem to matter. For example, some call the New Jersey Turnpike "White Man's Pass." The New Jersey Highway Patrol considers the turnpike a popular route for drug traffickers. Officers, however, stop a disproportionately high number of minorities, nearly two-thirds of those stopped. And, in 1998, New Jersey officers shot and wounded three black motorists, launching an investigation into allegations of "racial profiling." In an unguarded moment, New Jersey State Police Superintendent Col. Carl A. Williams justified the stops, "As far as racial profiling is concerned, that is absolutely not right. It never has been condoned in the State Police, and it never will be condoned in the State Police ... If you are looking at the methamphetamine market, that seems to be controlled by motorcycle gangs, which are basically predominantly white. If you are looking at heroin and stuff like that, your involvement there is more or less Jamaicans." For those remarks, Williams got canned. Enter the Feds. The Justice Department mandated reforms for the New Jersey Highway Patrol, including training on stopping, searching and seizing. The Feds imposed new requirements on data collection, and installed video cameras in every single patrol car. The result? Minorities still amount to 73 percent of those stopped! In a normal world, one calls this good news. After all, since the post-reform percentage of minorities stopped did not differ from the pre-reform rate, doesn't this vindicate the New Jersey Highway Patrol, or at least make the allegations of racial profiling a lot less clear-cut? Shouldn't this make minorities feel better? While nobody likes being stopped, the officers -- based on the evidence so far -- did not target black motorists just because they were black motorists. Good news? But, no. U.S. News & World Report published an article about the controversy -- "A Risky Trip Through 'White Man's Pass': In New Jersey, a Losing War (emphasis added) on Racial Profiling." Losing war? Remember, the Feds gave the officers new training and installed video cameras. But the article expressed frustration at the still large post-reform percentage of minorities stopped, asserting "but nothing, it seems, has worked (emphasis added)." Nothing worked? Is the goal to determine whether cops practice fair policing, or to get those minorities-stopped numbers down, come hell or high water? Let's use perspective. Examine each case on a case-by-case basis. Certainly bad, racist cops exist. But black police chiefs run the departments in cities like Atlanta, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Houston. And in Cincinnati, a city of 300,000 with a black population of 43 percent, 28 percent of the officers are black. The city's vice mayor is black. And of the last three officers killed in the line of duty, two were black. And how many blacks killed other blacks during this period in question? Three hundred. So, who's the enemy? LAPD Chief Bernard Parks said, "We're not just using race. It's got to be race plus other indicators." Allegations of "racial profiling" roll easily off the tongue, but today's reality remains far more complex. After all, didn't defense attorney Johnnie Cochran warn against a "rush to judgment"?