By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Two things happened within a couple days of each other that rammed the perennially tough 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 and 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 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 blacks and Hispanics are stopped, 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.
That is where the big debate begins. Denver police officials, as other police departments that have been 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. New York Police Department 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 includes 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 do the vast majority of these stops result in no arrests or even citations? That was the case in New York, where only a small percentage of the persons stopped were arrested.
So why are so many stops made to arrest so few if the stops are completely race neutral? This question still dangles unanswered.
The other troubling question is why have many of those who have been stopped 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 Barack Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder said there were times in earlier days when they felt they had been profiled by police.
In reports and public statements, civil rights and liberties groups have 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 Rep. 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.
The Justice Department could use the figures to determine how pervasive racial profiling was. The bill stayed in Congress during those years. There is no chance that anything even remotely close to that kind of legislation would be endorsed by President Donald Trump or Attorney General Jeffrey Session’s Justice Department or see the light of day in a Republican-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 a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.