Friday, March 09, 2001

Race in the city

Profiling has a bitter taste

        Racial profiling is such a nice term. It sounds more like a form of social science rather than the illegal act that it is.

        It's time to brush the sugar coating off and explain to people what we are talking about. When we worry that our police officers might be engaging in “racial profiling,” what we mean is that we fear cops are intentionally breaking the law. When we say we think they are making excuses to explain their actions, what we mean is we think they are lying to cover up their crimes.

        If you are not willing to deal with this issue in such harsh terms, you shouldn't even open the discussion.

        That pretty much sums up the views expressed by two of the most important witnesses to testify Tuesday before a Cincinnati City Council committee considering an ordinance against racial profiling.

        The proposed ordinance would require officers to list the race of drivers in all traffic stops and to note whether a citation is issued during the stop. Theoretically, this will enable the city to build a database showing how often particular officers stop people of particular races.

        The marathon hearing before the Law and Public Safety Committee, the first of two promised by Chairman John Cranley, featured 15 witnesses from an alphabet soup of community agencies concerned about police/community relations.

        The part of the discussion worth sticking around for came near the end when the committee heard from Scotty Johnson, president of the Sentinel Police Association, an organization of black officers; and Police Chief Thomas Streicher.

        Racial profiling won't be taken seriously by police officers unless and until the city starts treating it like a serious offense, Mr. Johnson said. “You don't have a lot of officers taking bribes because it is illegal and because it is a firing offense,” he said. Treat racial profiling the same way and you won't see it happen very often either, he said.

        Profiling is a problem long talked about and long ignored by the city, Mr. Johnson said. He told the committee members to either “bring meat to the table” in the form of severe discipline for officers caught discriminating against people or not to even bother sitting down.

        That was remarkably similar to the sentiment expressed by Chief Streicher, who said he does not believe racial profiling is widespread, but that it has existed in the department since he came on as a police cadet 30 years ago. But the data collection proposal isn't enough to identify problem officers because the raw information won't take into account the demographics of the beats officers patrol. It also is absurd to think officers who color their work with prejudice are going to admit to the practice on a form, he said.

        The chief asked council to find an independent expert, someone outside the police division, who would be trusted by the community, to develop a research model to collect data on all police actions, not just traffic stops. Such a model could then be used to get rid of the genuinely bad officers. “It would allow us to do something worthwhile with the data,” he said.

        The frequency of racial profiling is a matter of debate. Officer Johnson noted that out of 1 million contacts between the police and the public, there were only five recorded complaints of profiling, a ratio he said is unbelievable on its face.

        Keith Fangman, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said racial profiling is an exaggerated misperception. There are legitimate reasons police stop people without writing a citation. Appearance, clothes or car may resemble that of a suspect being sought. But stopping a person just because of his race seldom if ever happens, said Mr. Fangman. The FOP would never defend an officer who did it, he said. Given the wealth of plausible excuses for stopping people, the FOP is unlikely to be called upon to make such a defense.

        Those who support the proposed ordinance, including Mr. Cranley and Mayor Charlie Luken, say gathering the raw data on police stops is the first step. They are right. They need more information, whether racial profiling is the real problem they believe it to be, or just a “misperception.”

        But they should remember the “meat” Scotty Johnson told them about: If they are going to set this table, they better be prepared to eat what is served up.

        Contact David Wells at 768-8310; fax: 768-8610; e-mail: Cincinnati.Com keyword: Wells.


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