Profiling is worse than police will admit

It’s interesting to see the Oakland Police Department attempt to explain away the subtleties in the racial profiling of black motorists, especially when the statistics in a recent study confirm the practice.

The report, which the Rand think tank prepared at the city’s request, presents an unflattering picture: Black motorists tooling through Oakland, particularly black males, are nearly four times more likely to be stopped by a police officer than their white counterparts, whether it is morning, noon or night, and no matter what part of the city they’re traveling in.

And when black motorists are stopped, three times out of four, they will be detained longer than other motorists and are almost certain to be asked to submit to a body search.

“I think there was a good effort to put an understanding twist on things, and the protocol they’ve put together is a pretty good way to assess the issue, but their report just confirms what many people have believed for years,” said John Burris, a prominent Oakland defense attorney. “The objective of the stop is to search the car, and you need a pretext for the search.”

And for the officers that engage in the practice, low-income areas are a gold mine: There are many cars with visible problems and a disproportionate number of motorists with expired tags or other violations to choose from.

The department has acknowledged that a problem exists in its post-stop practices and has pledged to work with community groups and its police force to recast policies to help officers avoid such pitfalls. While that is a commendable goal, the department still seems reluctant to admit that a serious problem exists.

In recent years, Oakland police have initiated traffic stops of prominent black citizens, including a well-known entertainer and one of the most successful sports agents in the country.

Last November, police trailed sports agent Aaron Goodwin for nearly 2 1/2 miles from his home in the Oakland hills, thinking they were tracking a robbery suspect. When four additional patrol cars showed up for support, police initiated a stop, with weapons drawn.

Police ordered Goodwin from the car and told him to drop down on all fours. When he complied, another officer told him to crawl toward them. Goodwin, who had been screaming that they had the wrong man, flatly refused.

Officers handcuffed and detained Goodwin in a squad car before realizing they had the wrong guy and released him. A week later, he filed a lawsuit against the department, claiming it had used excessive force.

In 1999, Police Officer Matthew Hornung began choking a motorist he thought was swallowing drugs, and ordered him to “spit it out.” The motorist was musician D’Wayne Wiggins, a guitarist in the band Tony! Toni! Tone! And the substance in his mouth was water.

Goodwin’s lawsuit against the city is still pending, and Wiggins received a $25,000 settlement in January 2001. It should be noted that Hornung was later fired along with three other officers known as the Riders. Three of them face a retrial for allegedly beating and planting drugs on suspects in West Oakland, while the fourth is a fugitive.

A troubling approach

In a city like Oakland, where many prominent black motorists drive cars that reflect their success, making assumptions based on race should be a job- threatening proposition.

The truth is that DWB, Driving While Black, is risky in the city. It’s only a matter of time before police will stop and question the law-abiding black motorists living in predominantly black neighborhoods.

Police are in a tough spot when it comes to this practice because there is another set of statistics that helps explain the stops — albeit in the most unflattering way to the black community.

When you consider that most crimes in Oakland are committed by young black males, police could argue that the community, not the Police Department, is engaged in racial profiling.

“You can look at our deployment methods,” Police Chief Richard Word said. “We heavily patrol the flatland areas of the city. On our daily list of wanted persons, 80 to 90 percent of them are black. So are our murder victims — and suspects.”

It only makes sense that black citizens have more contact with police, Word says, given the number of ex-cons in the city, who are searched whenever they have contact with an officer.

Word is quick to acknowledge that police work is always easier when officers have a rapport with members of the community they serve.

Mostly law-abiding people

Here’s another statistic that you won’t find in the department report, but a statistic just as important in the daily fight against crime: More than 90 percent of Oakland’s black residents are law-abiding and not on parole, probation or otherwise tethered to the criminal justice system.

They are honest people trying to live honest lives, even if they don’t live in the city’s finest neighborhoods. They work for a living, raise families, pay taxes and care about their homes and communities just as much as the next guy.

They deserve better from a Police Department whose job is supposed to be to protect and serve, not stereotype and harass.