Today, I sat in the Office of Internal Affairs at a local county police department and had two African-American police officers work very hard to convince me that profiling is a good practice. The major portion of their argument was based upon the fact that it is legal.
As I think about it, I am not surprised to hear that it is legal. So any officer can check anyone’s license tag anytime he or she chooses without having any reason except the desire to do so. Of course we only have to take a look at the crime statistics to see that some groups of folks seem to be of more interest to police officers than others. African Americans represent around 13 percent of the U.S. population, but 40 percent of the prison population. There are more African-American men in prison at the present time than were enslaved in 1850.
The United States has more people in prison than any other nation and our prison spending has risen at six times the rate of what we spend on higher education over the past few years. We need to become much more serious and intentional about doing something to end mass incarceration at this breakneck pace that is moving us more toward being a police state.
It is difficult to understand why some things happen, but in the case of my son being profiled back in December, I think I am beginning to get a clue about that. Though I have always cared deeply about these issues, it is easy to let them slip to the back burner while others get top billing. But the events over these past four months make it clear that there is a need to become more active in trying to make changes.
Of course, the officer profiling my son has done nothing illegal. Therein lies the problem. Police officers are allowed to conduct their business in ways that are legal, but simply do not happen to be right. It may be possible to rule profiling as legal thus acceptable. It seems possible to shoot unarmed persons and have that declared legal when the circumstances seem to cry out that the shooting isn’t right.
Today, I was told there are things left to the officers’ discretion such as putting a person in handcuffs and having them wait in the patrol car while information is being gathered. So some officers choose to treat folks they detain in one way and then other officers choose another way. It appears to be possible for the range to be anything from leaving the person in the car to actually doing harm to the person, depending upon the officer’s discretion.
I think it’s time to put an end to profiling. Of course, I realize that it is not called profiling, it is simply running people’s license tags. But many of us know that some groups are more suspect than others thus it is a practice that needs to be stopped. Since it is clearly practiced in an unfair manner, it should not be allowed at all. The law should require that license tags not be checked until a person has violated a traffic law that allows officers to have a legitimate reason to check their plates. I intend to explore this law further and the process that might be used to get it changed. I am weary of the wholesale maltreatment of people of color and poor people and the ways in which it has become so acceptable.
Profiling is not acceptable. No one should have the legal right to pick and choose who will be singled out to become a suspect of wrongdoing on the bases of discretion.
This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.