Friday, July 31, 2009

The President, the Policeman and the Professor

When we care as much about Joe Gates as we do about Skip Gates we will be well on our way to solving the racial profiling crisis in this nation. More sobering than a cold brew, 32 million Americans claim they have been racially profiled.

Perhaps some definition would help. Racial profiling occurs when a law enforcement official (consciously or unconsciously) uses race or ethnicity as a proxy for probable cause. Racial profiling also occurs when blacks, Asians, Latinos, Arabs or other persons of color are treated more harshly (by a black or white officer) than a similarly situated white criminal suspect would be treated.

I am glad that Skip Gates raised hell, and glad that the President called the police conduct stupid because it gives us an opening to talk about a serious, pervasive race relations problem in America. Ever the soldier/statesman, Colin Powell told Larry King that almost every African American (including him) has faced a situation where they believe their race/ethnicity gets them in trouble with the police. That is where we need to begin.

Too many whites act as if blacks who complain about police mistreatment are "playing the race card" or imagining disparate treatment. One study showed that blacks get stopped more often than whites on suspicion of drug behavior, but that whites are twice as likely to actually possess drugs as blacks are when stopped.

I don't mind the President's beer fest too much - what can it really harm? But what we really need is calm, rational research and investigation into why blacks and other persons of color perceive negative disparate treatment. If an officer makes a stop, but no arrest, the basic statistics on race, gender need to be recorded for future study. A statute that would do just that in Georgia cannot make it out of the Capitol basement hearing room of the non-civil judiciary committee.

We also need to explore whether police are obligated to give some basic information to suspects - something like Miranda. For example, the arresting officer could say, "Mr. Gates, you are being ticketed because you were weaving over the line. If you believe my assessment was incorrect you have the right to a trial before a judge or jury. We will not be able to settle this matter here. If you think I am being unfair to you, you can file an internal affairs report with my supervisor." So often we hear of situations that escalate from 0-60, resulting in arrest for offenses ranging from disorderly conduct to obstruction because a suspect's questions are ignored at the scene.

There is nothing wrong with the opposing parties getting together for a Bud Lite, but we need a policy response to the serious issue of racial profiling.

In what now seems prescient, for the past few months we have asked folks to share their racial profiling stories with us on the air at WAOK. A 60-year old bus driver says that he is routinely stopped on his way home after his graveyard shift ends while traveling through a mostly-white suburban neighborhood, by the same officer each time. A young man says that he has been stopped so many times that he has learned not to put fancy rims on his wheels or tint on his windows and never travel with more than one other person. And then there was the Columbus, GA, case a few years back resulting in death of a man with no weapon, no criminal history, and no probable cause. He was out late with friends in a fancy SUV. The police could not imagine that he earned the money for the car as an insurance salesman.

We have gotten so many calls, that we are hosting a public hearing for elected officials and the public - September 15, 2009 at 6:00 p.m. at Mount Ephraim Church in Atlanta. Stay tuned.