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Brown and Ford Slayings Prove that Racial Profiling Just Might Kill

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The surprising thing about U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s tale of being pulled over twice as a college student driving on the New Jersey Turnpike and again as a federal prosecutor in Washington D.C. at a convention of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network last April was that there was no surprise about it. Holder as a college student or Holder as a federal prosecutor was not immune from the harassment, targeting, possible arrest, and even in some cases violence while walking or driving while black. Tragically, this was not the case with Ezell Ford in Los Angeles or Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Though separated by 2,000 miles, both men had three things in common with Holder the student. They were young, black and male. They were not accused of any crimes. Yet they were still stopped and slain by police officers.

Their slayings proved what Holder and legions of other blacks know. That is that racial profiling might kill. There’s the astounding report that nearly 30 black males have been killed by police or security guards the last two years.

Nearly all were unarmed. There is no conclusive proof that the young men were killed solely because they were black. But the irrefutable fact is that they were black, and countless studies and surveys of police and public attitudes show that young black males are far more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested than white males. It’s at times only a short step from that to a deadly altercation.

In Ferguson, a study based on police statistics found that in 2013 while African-American drivers make up a little less than two-thirds of the driving-age population in the city, they made up nearly 90 percent of all traffic stops. They were almost twice as likely to be searched as whites and twice as likely to be arrested even though police found no weapons or drugs on them. An ACLU study found that blacks were likely to be stopped, searched and arrested in nearly every category of crime than whites. The LAPD has tried several approaches to root out racial profiling from mediation to dialogue sessions to intense sensitivity training of officers. But the hard reality is that despite hundreds of complaints of racial profiling received by the LAPD almost none have been sustained.

Many police officials hotly deny that racial profiling exists. Yet they have no credible answer to two crucial questions about these stops. One is that the overwhelming majority of stops result in no arrests, or even citations. And no weapons or drugs are found. New York City has continually topped the list of big city police departments that make the highest number of unwarranted street stops. A study of the city’s study and frisk policy shows that only a small fraction of those persons stopped were arrested. The studies also found a comparable low number of arrests in relation to the high number of street stops in every other city. The other troubling and largely unanswered question is why many of those who have been stopped have been prominent black and Latino professionals, business leaders, and even some state legislators and House representatives as was the case with Holder? The susceptibility of even celebrated black men to be hauled off when there’s even the slightest suspicion, mistaken or otherwise, of criminal wrongdoing has left many police officials red-faced with embarrassment when they realized their goof.

Before the 9/11 terror attacks, civil rights leaders had made some headway in drawing public attention to the fight against racial profiling. In its report “Police Practices and Civil Rights in America” issued in 1999, the Civil Rights Commission called on police departments to immediately fire any officer guilty of racial profiling. The Justice Department initiated investigations of police departments in several cities for civil rights violations, mostly against young black and Latino males. It brokered consent decrees with city officials in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles to rein in the blatant, and well documented abusive practices of police departments in those cities in those years.

There was some hope that Congress would finally consider passing the Traffic Stops Statistics Study Act introduced by Michigan Democrat John Conyers in 1999 and 2000. The bill required the Justice Department to compile figures from local police departments by race on highway traffic stops. The data would document why a driver was stopped and whether an arrest was made or not. The Justice Department could use the figures to determine how pervasive racial profiling was. The bill did not force local police agencies to collect data and imposed no sanctions on those that refuse to compile stats. It has gone nowhere in Congress.

The admission that racial profiling does exist is a hard slap to the official embedded notion that justice is color blind and impartial. The killings of Brown and Ford aren’t likely to change that. But the brutal reality is that they stand as stark proof that racial profiling just might kill.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.

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