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Driving While Black

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

The issue of racial profiling by police briefly grabbed the attentionof the press when New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman recently firedthe head of the state police after he accused blacks and hispanics of beingmore likely to be drug dealers and therefore deserving of heightened policescrutiny. Whitman earned glowing coverage for her swift action.

In fact, Whitman has sedulously ignored the problem for most of her term,insisting that racial profiling is not a practice of the state police. Evenafter two New Jersey state troopers fired eleven shots into a van carryingfour black men on their way to a basketball clinic last winter Whitman clungto her contention that the action was not racially motivated. In 1995 aNew Jersey state judge threw out charges against fifteen black drivers who,the judge said, had been pulled over without cause. During the trial itemerged that on a 26-mile long stretch on the southern part of the New JerseyTurnpike minorities accounted for 46 percent of the drivers stopped, eventhough they were only 15 percent of the speeders.

Whitman also kept her mouth shut in early February when Emblez Longoria,a New Jersey state trooper, filed suit against his department claiming thathe was being pressured to make illegal stops of black and hispanic driversin order to fulfill his arrest quotas. Longoria, who is hispanic, allegesthat he was denied promotions and harassed by his superiors when he refusedto pull over drivers using racial profiling. Ultimately, Whitman’s handwas forced by the racist remarks of Col. Carl Williams, the head of theNew Jersey state police. Responding to a report showing that 75 percentof all motorists arrested on the New Jersey Turnpike in the first two monthsof 1997 were minorities, Williams told the Newark Star-Ledger that cocaineand marijuana traffickers were most likely to be either black or hispanic.Williams was canned, but don’t expect much more action than that. The investigationof his Department has been in the hands of Attorney General Peter Verniero,who has fiercely denied that New Jersey cops use profiling. Black leadersin New Jersey have demanded that Verniero’s investigation be taken up byan independent panel. But Whitman has refused and instead has nominatedVerniero for a spot on the New Jersey Supreme Court.

But racial profiling is neither new nor isolated to the Garden State.Criminology has had these genetic typing obsessions as far back as eugenicistssuch as Cesare Lombroso, who attempted to define criminal types throughhead shapes and other physical characteristics. Particularly influentialin the US was Earnest Albert Hooten, a Harvard professor of anthropologyand appalling racist who published The American Criminal in 1939. Now theseracist theories have pervaded the policing system of the United States fromcoast to coast. To be a black driver in America is to invite police scrutiny,as thousands are daily singled out for groundless pull-overs, “pretext”stops, and subjected to intrusive, warrantless searches and abusive treatmentby police.

The problem is not merely one of racist cops, but of a policing systemthat encourages and promotes racial typing. In Amherst, Massachusetts, thepolice department held seminars for its officers on “perpetrator profiles”.The officers were told that “interracial couples” were more likelyto be engaged in drug dealing than white couples.

In San Diego, the police are ever vigilant to pull over black peopledriving expensive cars. In October of 1997, a black man named Shawn Leeand his girlfriend were stopped by the California Highway Patrol on Interstate15. Lee, a member of the San Diego Chargers football team, and his girlfriendwere handcuffed and held by police for more than an hour. The patrolmansaid that they were detained because Lee was driving a car that fit a descriptionof one that had been reported as stolen that night. This story was false.Lee was driving a new Jeep Grand Cherokee. The stolen vehicle was a Honda.

A similar kind of racial typing is evident up the coast in supposedlyliberal Santa Monica. In the fall of 1996, two police cars tailed DarrylHicks and George Washington, two black men, as they pulled into the parkinggarage of their hotel. The police cruisers turned on their lights and atgun-point ordered the men out of their cars. The men were handcuffed andplaced in separate police cars. Washington and Hicks’ car was searched.The police claimed the men were being detained because they fit the descriptionof suspects wanted in a string of nineteen armed robberies. The officersalso said one of the men appeared to be “nervous”. Washingtonand Hicks later sued the police officers for false arrest and civil rightsviolations. In ruling for the two men, the court determined that the armedrobberies had not occurred in Santa Monica and that neither of the men fitthe descriptions of the robbers.

In Carmel, Indiana, an affluent suburb of Indianapolis, a state trooperpulled over a black man named David Smith. The trooper was unaware thatSmith was a sergeant in the Carmel city police department and the sedanhe was driving was actually an unmarked police car. Smith was ordered outof his car and, according to Smith, the trooper appeared to be “shockedand surprised” when he saw that Smith was wearing his police uniform.The trooper said he had pulled Smith over because he had three antennason the back of his car.

A similar incident occurred in Orange County, Florida. In April of 1997,Aaron Campbell was pulled over by sheriff’s deputies on the Florida Turnpike.The deputies ordered Campbell from the car, forced him to the pavement,drenched his face with pepper spray and arrested him. Campbell was a majorin the Metro-Dade County police department and had identified himself asa policeman when he was pulled over. The Orange County deputies later saidCampbell had been stopped for having an “obscured license tag”and for making an illegal lane change.

As is so often the case, the pretext for the profiling is the drug war,itself a ill-disguised form of state-sponsored racism. Nowhere has thiskind of racial typing in the name of drug interdiction been used as aggressivelyas in Maryland, where since at least 1988 it has been the policy of thestate troopers to pull over, detain and search drivers for drugs and guns,using a race-based “drug courier profile”. According to the testimonyof a Maryland State Trooper, those race profiles explicitly targeted: “1)young, black males wearing expensive jewelry; 2) driving expensive cars,usually sports cars; 3) carrying beepers; and 4) in possession of telephonenumbers.”

In 1990, the state police set up a drug task force called “SpecialTraffic Interdiction Force”, or STIF. STIF targeted drivers along Interstate95 in northeastern Maryland. The unit was composed of six white troopers.Over the course of six years, the STIF unit, using the drug courier profile,pulled over and searched black drivers four times as often as they did whites.One of the troopers, Bernard M. Donovan, searched only black drivers.

In 1992, the Maryland State Police’s Criminal Intelligence Division developeda “Confidential Criminal Intelligence Report”, which troopersused to make stops and searches based on race. The report encouraged troopersin Allegheny County to increase searches of black male drivers by sayingthat “the county is currently experiencing a serious problem with theincoming flow of crack cocaine”. The Intelligence Report professedthat “the dealers and couriers (traffickers) are predominantly blackmales and females”.

The Criminal Intelligence Report came to light through a lawsuit filedin 1993 by Robert Wilkins. Wilkins, a Harvard Law School graduate, was apublic defender in Washington, DC. In May of 1992 he was returning to DCfrom a family funeral in Ohio in a rented Cadillac. He was accompanied byhis aunt, uncle and a 29-year old cousin. Wilkins was pulled over by a trooperin western Maryland for speeding. He and his family were ordered out ofthe car and forced to stand in driving rain for more than an hour as thestate trooper brought in drug-sniffing dogs to search the car. No drugswere found. Wilkins and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit and,in 1995, won a substantial settlement from the Maryland State Police. Aspart of the Wilkins settlement, the state police agreed to compile a databaseof all stops of drivers on Maryland highways in which police ask to performsearches or in which a search is done by a drug-sniffing dog.

White motorists make up 78 per cent of Maryland highway traffic, whileblack drivers account for about 17 per cent and other minorities about 5percent in the state. When the Wilkins data were submitted to the courtin late 1998, they showed that between January 1, 1995 and December 15,1997, more than 70 per cent of the people who were stopped and searchedon Interstate 95 were black and about 77 per cent were minorities. Onlyabout 23 per cent were white. The data also revealed that the vast majorityof drivers who were stopped and searched and not found to be carrying anydrugs were also black, more than 67 percent. The ACLU has used such datato bring a class action suit against the Maryland state police.

Clearly, the Wilkins litigation did nothing alter the racist practicesof the Maryland troopers as evidenced by the testimony of State TrooperMichael Lewis in a recent criminal case. Lewis told the court that he pulledover Robert Ware in large measure because he was a young, black man. Lewisadmitted that he factored in the race of drivers on a daily basis as partof his drug interdiction work. In late 1998, the Maryland State Police assignedLewis to a post as an instructor, training other troopers in how to identifypotential drug couriers on the state’s highways.

One of the plaintiffs in the ACLU suit is Nelson Walker, a native ofLiberia and a student at the University of North Carolina. In April of 1995Walker was stopped on Interstate 95, purportedly for failure to have hisseatbelt buckled. The trooper who pulled him over insinuated that his 1990Infiniti was too nice a car for Walker to be driving and ordered Walkerand his passenger out of the car. Drug-detecting dogs were called for andthen the car was searched for over an hour and a half. Walker and his friend,Mecca Agunabo I, were made to stand in the rain for nearly two hours whilethe car was searched.

When Agunabo said he needed to get out of the rain because he had justrecently recovered from a bout with pneumonia, the trooper threatened toarrest him. In a search for drugs, the troopers rummaged through the men’sluggage and other personal belongings. Then the troopers largely dismantledWalker’s car, tearing out a door panel, the back seat and part of the sunroof.No drugs were found. One of the troopers went to his cruiser and returnedwith a screwdriver, which he handed to Walker saying, “Here, you’regoing to need this.” CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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