Racial Profiling: Who’s Stereotyping Whom?

(Printed in The Trenton Times Op-Ed Section, July 27, 2009)

As a former big-city police officer, a former police misconduct investigator, a bi-racial African-American, and as an attorney who defends both police officers and the criminally accused,  I have a unique perspective on the touchy subject of  “Racial Profiling,” an issue which has recently been debated in the Times editorial pages by Ewing Attorney Donald Roscoe Brown and Lawrence Township Police Chief Daniel Posluzny.

Since any public discussion of racial profiling usually ends in a predictable stalemate, with familiar arguments and little new insight, I will make an effort to advance this discussion.  Like Mr. Brown, I feel I would “be doing a gross disservice by not writing of my personal experience.”

For three years in the mid 1990s, I served as a police officer in a high-crime neighborhood in Boston.  I was a “working cop,” so I stopped many cars and people for many different reasons.  Some people got arrested, but most did not.  While sometimes race was a factor in my decisions to stop someone, it was never the only factor.

I worked in a predominately black neighborhood with known areas of illegal drug dealing.  If I saw a young white male drive up to a young man late at night on a known drug corner, stop momentarily, and make an exchange, I might stop the driver.  Race would be a factor in my decision, but I think justifiably so.  Other genetic characteristics, such as age and gender, also played a role in my decisions.

Although race played no role in most of my decisions, I was frequently accused of racial profiling.  Of course I knew such accusations were false, but I also knew that I could never really prove my true intentions to the satisfaction of my accusers.  As an eager and idealistic rookie, I would try to explain myself, and I made it a point to be excessively polite.  But nothing worked.

Eventually, I realized that it wasn’t about me at all.  Ironically, I was the one being stereotyped.  It didn’t matter that I am not a racist.  Certain people with pre-formed beliefs about police officers were going to accuse me of racial profiling no matter what the facts were.

The essence of the job of a police officer is to make judgments – dozens on any given day.  Those judgments are informed by the circumstances at hand, common sense, academy and field training, but mostly experience.  For cops on the beat, it is a challenge to determine the truth of any given situation.  Sometimes, police officers draw mistaken conclusions from their observations.  Since no human being is perfect – and yes, cops are human beings – mistakes and misperceptions are inevitable.

One response to this inevitability is to grant police officers the benefit of the doubt with the understanding that such mistakes are minimized through training, supervision, judicial scrutiny, and experience.  Police officers, prosecutors, many judges, and a large portion of the general public tend to give police the benefit of the doubt and presume that they act in good faith, unless credible evidence shows otherwise.

A contrary response to the inevitability of police mistakes is to use them to forward a personal or political agenda.  Espoused by Al Sharpton, the ACLU, the news media, and some people who have been stopped by police, this agenda-based approach posits police mistakes, combined with historical inequities, as conclusive evidence of racial profiling.  Conveniently, the actual existence of racial profiling in any given case can rarely be conclusively proved or disproved because the evidence lies solely in a police officer’s mind.  The perfect circularity of this argument makes it an effective fund-raising tool, political rallying cry, and a profitable source of headlines.  But unfortunately, the truth becomes secondary.

Which brings me to Mr. Brown.  In his opinion article, “Driving While Black in Lawrence Township,”  (June 18) Mr. Brown accuses a Lawrence Police Officer of pulling him over because he is black.  He was wearing a suit, and was otherwise driving safely.  The officer told him he thought he was not wearing his seatbelt.  When he realized the seat belt was engaged, he sent Mr. Brown on his way.  By Mr. Brown’s own description, the officer was “very respectful and polite,” and the stop lasted about 30 seconds.  In his July 10 response article. “Lawrence Township Policing Is Equitable and Fair,” Chief Posluzny informs us that the stop occurred during the nationwide “Click it or Ticket” campaign in which police all over the country were instructed to ticket drivers not wearing seat belts.

Mr. Brown concluded that “but for my blackness, I probably would not have been stopped.”  The irony is that Mr. Brown drew conclusions based on his stereotypes of police officers.  Without any factual basis, Mr. Brown assumes that “perhaps [the officer] wasn’t aware of some subconscious views he might possess regarding the unwarranted belief that blacks, in general, are predisposed to committing crimes and unlawfully operating motor vehicles.”  It’s disappointing that an intelligent and accomplished person like Mr. Brown would make such a serious accusation based on nothing more than his own stereotype that white police officers harbor “subconscious” racist views that influence their professional decisions.  But, I wonder whose subconscious is influencing whom.

It would be foolish for me to argue that there are no racist cops.  But, it is equally foolish to accuse a police officer of one of the most serious offenses in the profession based on nothing more than a stereotype.