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July 27th, 2009
09:45 PM ET

Police profiling: The lost lesson in this teachable moment

Robert Zimmerman
AC360° Contributor and CNN Political Analyst

As I spent my rainy Sunday in New York watching all the well balanced, politically correct and diversified panels discuss the arrest of Professor Gates, I was struck by the glaring reality that no one on the panels that I observed was a member of or associated with the police profession.

Yes, there were political pundits, sociologists, media commentators, radio talk show hosts, the occasional academician and the inevitable author or two. Many sounded like they were reciting their favorite scenes from Law and Order as they tossed around phrases describing the arrest and their interpretation of why the charges were dropped. Almost all agreed that they did not know what specifically precipitated the arrest, the reasons for it or how race was a factor. However, there was a conclusion among many that race was a factor. This was a particularly stunning conclusion considering the exemplary career of Sergeant James Crowley. For five years Sgt. Crowley taught a class on racial profiling at the Lowell Police Academy. He was hand-picked for that assignment by former Police Commissioner Ron Watson, who is African-American. President Obama described Sgt. Crowley as an "outstanding police officer and a good man" and said that he has "a fine track record on racial sensitivity."

Racial profiling or biased policing is a well documented, shameful and tragic aspect of law enforcement history. It also exists in many other aspects of our nation's culture and society. In examining this issue, I took the daring initiative to actually speak to a respected member of the police profession on this matter. In fact, I spoke to one of our nation's most highly regarded and successful leaders in policing, Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton. In addition to his present position and serving as the President of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, he formerly served as the New York City Police Commissioner and the Police Commissioner for the City of Boston.

Chief Bratton reviewed with me the extensive measures that police have aggressively taken to address the issue of racial profiling in the past 15 years. He pointed out that this issue is being confronted through changes in law that make racial profiling illegal and give the Federal government enforcement powers to combat it. In the selection process for new recruits, police are required and trained to look for signs of bias and prejudice. Additionally, new policies and procedures are continually being developed to strengthen supervision, documentation and the investigation of citizen complaints of racial profiling. Many police cars also now have video equipment to monitor police and their interactions with citizens. The police profession has been addressing the issues of race and bias more openly than American society as a whole.

The teachable moment from this experience should seek to raise awareness of racial profiling and bias policing, and the ways to address it. However, the lesson will be lost if we do not also address the dangers of police profiling- the automatic assumption that racial profiling is the issue when an encounter or arrest is made of a person of color by a white police officer.

soundoff (354 Responses)
  1. Joane

    KL, I am a black woman and yes, we just always wanted special treatment. We have always received it, too. If I followed your rule, we would be the American version of the third reich. More than Jews would be dead, gays, gypsies, etc. People followed orders in nazi Germany and that turned out peachy keen, didn't it?
    The surrounding countries, followed suit and guess what, same out come. One needs to remember the poem, they came for........ You abdicate your freedom of speech, I will not.
    It is amazing how white America dumbs down the past reatment of any minority and then blames the victim. I am not now, nor, will I ever be one. This is a euphemistic statement. When you say we blacks want special treatment, remember all we have had that. Lynchings, burnings, bombings. Children blown up in church. Civilrights workers killed. Special laws called 'jim' that you loved to crow about. Sen. Sessions will not not vote for Sotomayor because of her views. White men are whining, saying, if a white man said what she did, what would happen. My dears. Tsk, Tsk, Tsk. You legistated your response. From retricted laws that prevented integration to who to marry or with whom to deal socially. I have no intentions of forgetting, any more than a Jewish person who experienced the holocaust will forget, the Sioux who won their case in the Supreme court to get their beloved and sacred Black Hills back because it was determined they were stolen. did they get them back, n-o–o-o-o-!! As usual, white America threw money at the problem and guess what , it still sits in the bank. They won't touch it. They won the case and want back their land. So forget, no. Until you are brave enough, have guts enough to sit down and talk, face to face, about everything and this includes all parties. I'm not forgetting anything. 67 years later you still remember Pearl Harbor. Over 150 years later, Texans remember the Alamo. Yet, we should forget and get over 400 yrs. How about those native Hawaiians? You think they will ever forget how white people took their country after they voted against statehood and had the petitions hidden. They are in an enclosed case in front of the state capital building for the world to see.

    July 29, 2009 at 8:29 am |
  2. Kylie

    You cannot have your own facts.

    You can have your own opinions.

    Fact:
    Identification of Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr occurred. Whether it was with the Harvard ID or driver license.

    I deem facts has highly corroborated pieces of information

    At issue: When the id was presented and when.

    According to the officer's own police report, and Dr. Gates was arrested after it was determined that the house belonged to him.

    Fact: According to the police report he noted no fear of danger and most of the conversation took please inside and on Dr. Gate's property.

    Fact: Sgt Crowley's provided information in his report that is not supported by the witness nor is it corroborated by the tape.

    Fact: You cannot hear Professor Gates on the tapes. The police said you would be able to. You cannot. The decibel level Professor Gates was speaking was not at a yell.

    Fact: Massachusetts law does not allow for the arrest for such offense.

    My opinion: This does not have anything to do with race. It is the people here who want a fight about racism to make it about race. This is about professionalism. People want to ignore the facts or cherry pick the talking points that sound good but their is no arrestable offense committed. The two people could have been white I would have thought this was wrong and yes stupid.

    Additionally, it is stupid that the witness statements do not match the police reports and the police unions etc continue take their fight forward. You were wrong to make the arrest.

    It was a stupid act. But defending it visible when the evidence does not support your version of the events does not fortify the public trust.

    July 28, 2009 at 5:04 pm |
  3. Sig

    The police acted stupidly. This was not just a misunderstanding. A man was taken from his home to jail, for being "pissed off" i might add. Sgt. Crowley made things worse by LYING on his police report. (A fact that you seem to want to ignore) In my opinion a law suit is in order. I also beleive Sgt. Crowley should be fired for falsifying a police report. The black officer who supported Crowley, at the very least, needs to be re-trained.

    July 28, 2009 at 4:42 pm |
  4. Joane

    Don't compare us to you. The professor will do nothing. Now, a white one, I don't know. My daughter had a white one who fact checked every thing she did because she 'spoke' to well and could put two words together and form a cohesive thought. Something unheard of in the black community, even is her aunt has a masters in English and taught it and french for over 30 yrs. Her mother minored in English. I guess we jes' don no nuthin'!!!!

    July 28, 2009 at 4:33 pm |
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