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Gates’, A Case Of Racial Profiling? (Daily Record, 2009)


By Scott Forsyth A version of this article appeared in the ‘Daily Record’ on August 12, 2009.

The arrest of Professor Gates has reignited the debate about racial profiling. Is profiling still a problem, both nationally and locally? Does the fact that the nation is led by its first African-American President lessen or heighten the intensity of the debate? First a quick review of the Gates’ case. Returning from a long trip to China, Professor Gates found the lock to his front door jammed. After several attempts to open it, he went to the back door and got in. Going to the front door, he opened it. He and his driver then carried his luggage into the house. Suddenly, the police arrived, responding to a 911 call about a possible break-in. From here the story gets murky. According to Gates, he identified himself as the homeowner and produced a photo ID, as demanded by the police. The police report asserts that he was abusive and non-cooperative. We do know that he was arrested for disorderly conduct. He was handcuffed, removed to the Cambridge Police Headquarters, had a mug shot taken, and held for four hours. Two days later all charges were dropped. The police report states that the 911 caller described two black men acting suspiciously. The caller later denied saying anything about their race and the 911 tapes back her up. Was this a case of racial profiling or simply an unfortunate conflict between two individuals with strong personalities? The issue has been raging for several weeks in the media along with the obvious question: if Professor Gates were white, would any of this have happened? What is racial profiling? A generally accepted definition is using racial characteristics in determining whether a person is considered likely to commit a crime or an illegal act or to behave in a certain manner. Profiling violates the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Fourth Amendment protects all persons against unreasonable searches and seizures without probable cause. Just because a person is of a race that may statistically have a higher crime rate is not, by itself, probable cause. Profiling is also a form of prejudice, that is, judging a person by exterior characteristics rather than indisputable facts. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that all citizens be treated equally under the law. Despite the supposed constitutional protections, we have a long and egregious record of disproportionate police practice. For example, a survey done by the Maryland State Police reported that 70% of the traffic stops along Interstate 95 in the state were minority drivers, while the actual proportion of minority drivers on the road was 17%. Further south Florida decided to make “random” traffic stops for the purpose of detecting contraband. Worse than Maryland, its stop rate was around 80% minorities while the total minority drivers were around 20%. Experiences like these have led to the euphemism about the crime of DWB, driving while black. Locally, many minorities believe that the police unfairly target them. They have a solid basis for this belief. Seven years ago the NYCLU, after a fight in court, obtained from the City of Rochester copies of the Field Interrogation Forms that its officers must fill out whenever an officer stops but does not arrest a person. On the form are boxes for race, sex, and age. Not surprisingly, blacks were almost twice as likely to be stopped as whites. Black males between the ages of 15 and 24 were a special focus of the stops. On an annual basis one out of every two young black males could expect to be stopped. For young white males, the same ratio was one of eleven. The disproportionate number of blacks stopped was not proof of profiling as in Maryland. The stops occurred with much greater frequency in neighborhoods with high crime rates, neighborhoods which just happened to be populated overwhelmingly by minorities. Then Chief of Police Duffy made this point. To the black males and females then and now regularly stopped, questioned, sometimes harshly, and then allowed to move on, the point has little meaning. Every police officer takes an oath to uphold the Constitution. The time has come for the oath to become a reality. Perhaps the Gates case can become a “teachable moment” from which a better policing regimen can emerge.  

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