Friday, July 31, 2009

Chapter 5: Racial Profiling

Another hot topic that is being discussed nationally is the subject of "racial profiling". Racial profiling is a practice where officers are accused of targeting people based on ethnicity to detain and question them. The U.S. Constitution under the 4th Amendment actually protects citizens from unlawful searches and seizures. Law enforcement agencies have come under fire because there have been documented cases nationwide that such practices may exist. One of the most popular cases of alleged racial profiling involved Aaron Campbell, a police major with the Metro-Dade Police Department. This case made national news not only because it involved a fellow law enforcement officer, but that it was captured on a police video camera mounted inside the arresting officer's patrol car. The news show "Nightline" aired it and created discussions around this issue.

As a former police officer, I had the occasion to view the tape in its entirety. Major Campbell was ultimately sprayed with pepper gas and arrested. He was charged with an illegal lane change and having an obscured license tag. It is the events that lead up to the arrest that in my professional opinion did not absolve Major Campbell of some culpability. Major Campbell did a few things that placed the officers in jeopardy and went below the standard of professionalism. He first got out of his vehicle perturbed about the initial stop. He commenced to yell curse words at the officer. He asked for the arresting deputy's supervisor, which the deputy complied. Major Campbell and no time gave the deputy the proper respect of his position. Major Campbell outranked the deputy and his actions demonstrated that he had nothing but disdain for an "deputy" stopping him for what he said was "no reason".

Law enforcement officers generally have respect for members within the profession. To this extent, there are "double standards". Officers will let other officers in different jurisdictions "off the hook" for infractions that the average citizen would be cited for. Major Campbell knew that he could have beaten the ticket. If he had of remained calm and collected either the deputy or his supervisor would have not given him a citation. Major Campbell crossed the line of professional courtesy and was treated accordingly. This was not a true case of racial profiling! This was a case of a megalomaniacal major who was hard nosed and used to getting his way. His ego got in the way and his pride was hurt. He happened to be Black so that became his escape in blaming others for his treatment. Racial profiling does go on, but not merely with white police officers. Black officers participate also in racial profiling against other Blacks. There is no excuse for it, but I will attempt the give a reason for it.

Essentially, police officers who are still motivated and enthusiastic about the job are sometimes the most rambunctious. Many officers have their affinities. Some officers have an affinity for chasing drug dealers; some enjoy handling domestic disputes, while others like recovering stolen vehicles. Officers have past experiences that make them sensitive to certain issues. For example, an officer may have lost his father to drug abuse. The lose of his father in that manner left such an indelible mark on him that he decides that he will dedicate his career to surveilling and arresting drug dealers. This is payback for all the drug dealers of the world who cause such pain to people like his father. The choice for his father to abuse drugs never comes into play.

From a societal perspective, this officer looks like a dedicated servant. No one complains about an officer who is ridding society of the parasites of the world. The ends justify the means. But under closer scrutiny, it is not about society; it is about the officer making mends for what he believes an injustice. His motivation gets clouded in his unresolved issues and society cannot see it because it is secretly hidden in the nature of the job. Among criminals, there are some similarities. Every profession has a uniform. For corporate America it is a dark blue suit. In paramilitary or military professions, it is an identifiable uniform. Uniforms identify who the person is and what he/she represents. Criminals also have uniforms that identify them according to their trade. The stereotypical uniform for the "cat burglar" was all black clothing, a mask, and a flashlight. Any time someone saw this picture, they knew it was a "cat burglar". The person was conforming to the uniform of his profession.

When rap artists sing about the exploits of the streets in "keeping it real", they wear clothing that is identified with those exploits. They are appealing to a certain market. That market responds to authenticity. It would not be authentic for rappers to where tuxedoes when they are singing about revenge on someone who was "dissed" in the "hood." This street uniform becomes so identifiable that when we see someone adorning it, the picture of what image it conjures springs forward. Police are not immune.

As a matter of fact, it is these identifiers that help police to be proactive in solving crime. People are creatures of habit and great imitators. Individuals often seek to outdo the next person in our their trade or profession. If their competitor is driving a Mercedes-Benz with $2,000.00 wheel rims, they want a Lexus coupe with $3,000.00 wheel rims. Consequently, individuals who engage in criminal activities will have lifestyles that ostentatiously reveal what their trade may be. If you place an individual who is wearing what criminals where, drive what criminals drive, and hangout where criminals frequent, the average officer may deduce that this person might be a criminal. Is the officer profiling the individual? Yes! Does he have reason to do it? Again, I say yes!
As humans, it is natural for us to categorize individuals based on how they represent themselves. A study conducted by Dr. Albert Mehrabian of U.C.L.A. concluded that we understand another person's communication based on 7% by their words, 38% by their tone of voice, and 55% by their body language. Consequently, what we say non-verbally speaks volumes over what we express with our mouth. If we are expressing ourselves in a manner that sheds a negative light on ourselves, we must take responsibility for it.

The most ineffective communicative person deserves not to be harassed although the message he conveys appears to be negative. The power that police officers carry comes with responsibility as well as "checks and balances". The victim of racial profiling may not have recourse at the time of the action, but he does have recourse at a more appropriate time. Many officers are as fearful in precarious situations as the person they are questioning is. In a dark alley within a crime ridden neighborhood is not the time to show how "man" you are. Many citizens escalate a volatile situation by reflecting the bravado behavior that the officer may be exhibiting. Let's assume for a minute that the officer is merely exercising a check because of the surrounding circumstances. You happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. The officer has been told by his police supervisor to canvass a neighborhood because citizens are complaining that drug dealers are openly selling drugs and they feel unsafe. He investigates what he believes to be "questionable" activity. This activity could range from guys hanging on the corner stopping vehicles to one guy passing "something" to a friend in successive patterns. You might say "That doesn't mean anything!" You are right, it may not mean anything, but remember, the officer is there because citizens within the neighborhood have been complaining about drug activity. Profiling does not merely entail traffic stops! If you are anywhere doing anything that fits a stereotype of criminality, you will be questioned.
It is a touchy situation, because African-Americans often come into a situation with preconceived notions. The typical Black male may believe that the police are bad, corrupt, and unjust. Some of his experiences may be justifiable, but why would you judge a whole profession by a few irresponsible police officers. We don't blame all McDonald restaurants when a clerk takes the wrong order or is rude while serving you. Preconceived notions are often self-fulfilling prophecies. Your perception becomes your reality. You go into a situation looking for the negative and say "Ah-hah, I told you so!" You usually seek what you find. Our naivete should not delude us into believing that there are no injustices in the world.

We have to refer back to the standards we set for our selves. Treat an encounter with a police officer, the way you would treat any business situation. Let's assume two things: 1. Some act is alleged and either it was or was not committed, 2. You are incorrect or the officer is incorrect. From that point on, it is two adults discussing a business matter. The business is safety and protection. If the two adults can not agree, it is time to get an impartial body to adjudicate the matter. If it is a traffic court, a traffic court judge will hear you. If it is some other violation of law, you will be heard by judge in a municipal court. It is a good idea to bring a lawyer to represent you if you feel strongly about the case having thought about it. There are several prepaid legal services that are less expensive than an attorney on retainer.

An attorney usually levels the playing field. The judge and police officers are custodians of the court. You are an outsider without the necessary requisite to engage effectively in the proceedings in most cases. An attorney as an officer of the court speaks for you and therefore brings equality to the judicial process. In some cases, an attorney may tip the scales in your favor, because he usually knows more about the scope of the law than even the police officer. The court also gives you more credibility, because it knows that astute citizens protect their interests by hiring a professional. We generally hire professionals to aid us where we do not have certain expertise. What would you look like trying to do your own corporate taxes without the aid of a CPA which you have no experience? Prepare in advance with legal representation by joining a discounted legal service program. These legal services are becoming more and more popular because of the litigious society that we live in. For a small monthly fee, you are entitled to adequate legal advice that puts you on the same footing with any other person wielding power in society. But do not stop there. As mentioned before, you have a responsibility to educate yourself on basic law. It is a good idea to have legal representation, but that does not preclude you from learning your own rights. Read the U.S. Constitution and the adjoining Amendments. Keep abreast of the latest news regarding new changes in the law and proposed referendums that will be in the next election. The old saying "ignorance of the law is no excuse" is not only factual, it may get you locked up or assets taking permanently.

Another option is writing a letter to the police department's Internal Affairs section. It is recommended that you write any complaint versus calling a complaint in over the phone. Letters are more permanent and get the attention of individuals, because it could end up anywhere, including the media. Department heads do not want to be held responsible for ignoring written correspondence for a couple of reasons. First, if written correspondence is ignored and the media discovers it for example, the chief has some explaining to do. Remember, the police department gets its resources to operate from the public. How does it look when the public that pays for its existence is not being responded to in its needs? Another reason is that department heads are political figures. It is not politically polite to ignore a letter by a constituent.
If the sender has exercised proper documentation, it is difficult for a chief to say that they never received it. Once you have received the appropriate person to address the letter to, make sure that you follow up with a phone call to the addressee a few days later. If they say that they have not seen the letter, either mail another one or fax it. Again, keep calling the contact person until he says he received the letter. If you have not heard a response from the letter within a reasonable amount of time (usually 2 weeks to a month), call the contact person for an update on the status. Make a note of the time and date that you called in case you have to write another letter.

The second letter should chronicle everything you have communicated to date. This is not the time to be lethargic or lazy merely because things are taking longer than you expected. This is the single most reason why citizens do not get the justice they seek. First, the average citizen will not take the time to compose a letter. Secondly, when they do write the letter, they give up because the process is taking too long. Believe it or not, the letter has put the process into place. The officer has to respond to the letter to the department and after all the facts have been weighed, an investigator will push the process through the proper channels to determine whether the officer is in violation of a departmental rule or law. Having been on the side of a few complaints, I can tell you that it is not a fun process. The average citizen does not know what an accused officer goes through behind the scene. He does not like to be accused of anything by the public.

First, it is an emotional rollercoaster ride to be questioned by a body of people about your actions. Second, you may be suspended if found guilty which means no income while suspended. Third, if the officer has seriously violated a citizen's rights, he may be sued civilly or criminally. The average citizen can take money or freedom from an officer. Do you still think police officers are untouchable? However, you must be in the right and they must be in the wrong!

Another unknown advantage that citizens have is to request an officer's supervisor to the scene. Theoretically, a citizen may request the chain of supervisors all the way to the chief. Practically speaking, this probably will not happen, but once you determine that whatever injustice you feel has been perpetrated against, you may begin building your case at that point. There is a such thing as a "code of silence" among police officers. However, it is changing largely because society has changed. Officers are no longer willing to put their livelihood and career in jeopardy for another officer. This is due in part to the idea that people are looking after their self-interest more and more. Consequently, a police supervisor is less likely these days to put his job on the line for a wayward police officer.

Also, badge numbers do not always correspond with the officer. Officers lose badges all the time and may not be recorded by the department. It is a safe bet to retrieve an officer's name and badge number, but the name especially. Note the date and time in case you have just "Baker" as the officer's name and there may be two Officer Bakers who work the same precinct. Remember to ask what, when, why, and how in building your case. It is your responsibility to continuously learn the laws and what your rights are. Like anything in life, you will be taken advantage of if you fail to do so.

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