Racial Profiling and Traffic Stops Conference

By Meek, James Gordon | Law & Order, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Racial Profiling and Traffic Stops Conference


Meek, James Gordon, Law & Order


For Ronald L. Davis, a representative of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), there is no doubt whether racial profiling by law enforcement is real, myth or systemic in the profession.

"As an African-American man," said Davis, "I have been a victim of it. As a cop I have been guilty of it. And as a manager I'm responsible for it."

Davis is a patrol commander in Oakland, CA, and made his frank admission during a July symposium on traffic stops and racial profiling hosted by the Performance Institute in Washington. He offered the NOBLE perspective of the red-hot political issue to an audience of officers from around the nation, advising them to define their agencies' missions and core values, and ensure their communities understand them.

He said the minority policing group recently gave recommendations to Attorney General John D. Ashcroft on how the Department of Justice might help eradicate the problem in troubled law enforcement agencies. Among NOBLE's suggestions were: startdardize data collection and analysis; define model policies for dealing with racial profiling: create a voluntary training program; and publish assessments of data.

For individual police agencies, Davis said NOBLE encourages recruiting reform for better screening of applicants and more emphasis on teaching values over "target practice," since most policing involves interactions with the community. not gunplay. Commanders should regularly rotate beat assignments and encourage better community relations by patrol officers and management alike.

Agencies that fail to recognize and properly address their racial profiling problems are politically doomed, according to David Harris, Balk Professor of Law and Values at the University of Toledo, OH, College of Law. He pointed to several departments that have failed to face the problem and have wound up under the yoke of federal consent decrees that have been generally viewed unfavorably.

Police managers often refuse to ease up on enforcement, fearing lawlessness, but the Toledo criminologist rejected that as archaic thinking. There are cities and counties across the country that have reduced crime and increased safety without buying into the myth that there is a trade off between strict law enforcement and respecting civil rights.

But not everybody agreed with Davis' and Harris' basic assumption. The gathering was lit up by a debate between Davis and Ted Deeds, director of operations for the Law Enforcement Alliance of America in Falls Church, VA. Deeds maintained that racial profiling does not exist in this country and the alleged appearance of bias-based policing is really the result of routine policing: a motorist runs a red light and is stopped by a police officer. Officers make most traffic stop decisions before they're even close enough to a vehicle to determine the race of the driver. Bad cops are bad cops and must be disciplined or disposed of if guilty of discriminatory enforcement.

Those, like Deeds, who are hesitant to criticize the profession, often point to federal statistics on arrest rates, which have shown minorities are arrested at a much higher percentage than whites. …

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