Police talk about racial profiling

Jeff Goldberg recently linked to a 1999 article that he wrote about racial profiling when the Henry Louis Gates case was in the public eye.  The article is 10 years old, but it’s got some good conversations that explore the attitudes of both white and black police on this topic.  It’s a long article but worth a read if you’re interested in this topic.  Goldberg does well in understanding the complexities at work in these cases, and doesn’t simply write off any of the cops that he interviews.

Here’s one of the key passages:

Black, black, black, black. It is what Mike Lewis sees. It is what Jeffrey Coates sees. It is tunnel vision. They understand half the equation—blacks commit more of certain types of crimes than whites. But what they don’t understand is, just because blacks commit more crimes than whites doesn’t mean that most blacks commit crimes.

“I see a 16-year-old white boy in a Benz, I think, ‘Damn, that boy’s daddy is rich.’ I see a 16-year-old black, I think, ‘That boy’s slinging drugs,”’ says Robert Richards, a black police sergeant in Baltimore who admits that tunnel vision is a hazard of the job. But like many black cops, he sees nuance where white cops see, well, black and white. “When I start thinking that way, I try to catch myself. If I’m walking down the street and I pass a black male, I realize that, chances are, he’s not a criminal.”

It is, in some respects, nearly impossible to sit in judgment of a Mike Lewis or a Jeffrey Coates. If Coates says he must pull black men out of their cars and search them on traffic stops, well, Coates has been shot at before, and most critics of the Sheriff’s Department have not. But if Coates—and his department, by extension—believe that it is permissible to conduct pretext stops in South Central but impermissible to do so in Santa Clarita, then there’s a problem.

The numbers cops cite to justify aggressive policing in black neighborhoods and on the highways tell only part of the story—an important part, but only part. For one thing, blacks make up only 13 percent of the country’s illicit drug users, but 74 percent of people who are sentenced to prison for drug possession, according to David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University and the author of “No Equal Justice.”

Common sense, then, dictates that if the police conducted pretext stops on the campus of U.C.L.A. with the same frequency as they do in South Central, a lot of whites would be arrested for drug possession, too.

Of course, this doesn’t happen, because no white community is going to let the police throw a net over its children.


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