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Restyling Racial Profiling

The conversations can’t be comfortable, and are somewhat akin to the story of the blind men trying to describe an elephant. Picture police officers and diversity advocates from around the state sitting in a room, trying to hammer out anti–racial-profiling guidelines that do three things:

* Put rules about what racial profiling is, or is not, into police department regulations all over California by early next year.
* Satisfy those who say new guidelines won’t be enough to prevent what they perceive as legal discrimination against them by mostly white men with badges.
* Quiet frustrated street cops who feel this sensitivity issue has gone too far and is making law enforcement tougher than it already was.

The most recent meeting was in San Diego in mid-June.

The regulations are coming from California’s Commission on Police Officer Standards and Training, the independent body of 15 gubernatorial appointees and the state attorney general. POST commissioners oversee the actions of 85,000 California officers in departments large and small. The racial-profiling guidelines being prepared by a task force are supposed to be on the books at police academies and police in-service training sessions by January 2002. And they’re not nearly ready to go.

“The biggest problem we have is that the definition of racial profiling is fuzzy, so the concept of how to deal with it also is a little fuzzy,” says POST public information officer Tom Hood. “Prejudice is touchy, and even trying to get a consensus is challenging, but we are, in good faith, operating under the assumption that [the guidelines] are necessary.”

“The public perception is that criminal profiling and racial profiling are the same,” says Clancy Faria, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC), the nation’s largest coalition of police officer associations. “They are not—criminal profiling is good and works; racial profiling is not good and should not be happening.” Faria says PORAC encouraged the guidelines as a way to train officers to be sensitive to racial profiling, but doesn’t think those guidelines should be used to target individual officers.

Conversations about racial profiling are conducted like carefully choreographed politically correct waltzes. Nobody wants to give the impression they’re not just thrilled with the prospect of defining on paper what respondents have told surveyors in cities like San Diego is happening on the streets.

The San Diego Police Department’s well-publicized survey (among the first in the nation) shows that people of color are, in fact, stopped more frequently than white drivers for even minor traffic violations, and it has become part of the Sacramento equation. How it’s being used to prepare the new guidelines is the subject of talk among officers who deny profiling exists—and among diversity advocates who insist it does.

“It’s important that the people coming up with the regulations make the distinction between the racial makeup of the driving population versus the racial makeup of the residential population, especially San Diego,” says Bill Farrar, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association. He says the number of Mexican drivers crossing into San Diego is a factor that may skew the numbers.

“But as long as the [anti–racial profiling] guidelines are reasonable and don’t substantially interfere with what we’re doing, we would have no problem with them,” Farrar says.

Community activists like San Diego’s Christian Ramirez are up front with their skepticism that any guidelines will work. “It’s a step, a small step, in the right direction,” says Ramirez, who heads the Raza Rights Coalition. “The approach is too little, too late. The only way to eradicate racial profiling is to make sure the community’s in control of police, that officers who work in areas like Shelltown and Barrio Logan also live there and know the people.”

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