Racial profiling fuels community mistrust

Matt Telleen

On the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks Americans were reminded of the heroism shown by firefighters and police officers in the face of last year’s tragedy. These brave men and women have reached a hero status usually reserved for soldiers who sacrificed their lives for their country. So, with this well-deserved reverence being showered on the law enforcement community, why do some citizens still resent and mistrust the officers who the rest of us honor?

On Aug. 22, police attempted to serve a warrant on a reputed drug house in north Minneapolis. Stories conflict about what happened next, but police fired shots when a dog was released and a young boy was hit in the arm. The story spread quickly through the neighborhood, and coming as it did after two other recent shootings, some residents reacted violently and people were injured and property was damaged.

As the story was covered both locally and nationally, there were conflicting opinions about just about every aspect of the story. People reacted to everything from the wording of the headline to the proper source for patrolling. If there is one thing we can all agree on, it’s that the relationship between the police and some of the north Minneapolis residents is in a precarious state.

In the public reactions to those events, it is clear some community members resent what they feel is an oppressive police presence: They feel like suspects because of their race. Others feel that the police do not have enough of a presence and are ineffective at dealing with problems and community complaints.

How can residents of the same community have such divergent views? How can the police fail on opposite ends? Do policies necessarily have to choose between which group they are going to serve? Some people claim the issue is divided by race, but the concerned citizens who worked to bring peace to their neighborhood and better communication between the police were a multi-ethnic group that reflected the neighborhood racial makeup. Some claim that they are the people who resent the police who have something to hide – the people breaking the law, the very people the other residents are complaining about. But any survey of people in the neighborhood finds law-abiding citizens who feel the police in the community are doing more harm than good.

The source of the deep-seated mistrust might originate from racial profiling and its resulting psychological effects. These policies, which exist with both departmental and political approval in many major cities, are a major contributor to the kind of resentment and frustration that permeates some neighborhoods in our city.

Consider this scenario: A young man passes in front of a police car in a high-crime neighborhood. The man fits a profile, which can include his style of clothes or his hairstyle but is primarily focused on his age, gender and race. In scenario “A”, the man has a gun in his waistband. If the police don’t stop him and is on his way to a drug deal that will go bad, an innocent person standing nearby could be hurt or killed.

In scenario “B”, the man has no gun and has just left high school where he has almost completed his degree. If the police don’t stop him, he’ll go home to do homework and watch TV like any other young man his age. If the police do stop him, he can’t help but feel resentful, frustrated and victimized. The message is clear: Society thinks he will be a criminal.

Some might argue that with these choices, the greater harm of racial profiling is obvious. What are some hurt feelings when compared to the threat of physical violence? Of course, these scenarios assume that the odds are even that the young man could be “A” or “B”, as if half the young men of a certain ethnicity walking in north Minneapolis are criminals. If they were, perhaps racial profiling could be justified. But there are no statistics to suggest that this is even close to being true. So what if it’s one out of three? One in ten? At what point are we alienating more people than we are helping?

Some people doubt that a simple police traffic stop or frisking is enough to alienate and cause the kind of resentment and frustration that the residents of north Minneapolis feel. Admittedly, other factors also contribute to their anger. But it must also be admitted that it’s practically impossible for anyone who hasn’t been a victim of racial profiling to understand what kind of reaction it causes.

The closest analogy for the average college student is probably the parking enforcement on campus. Police routinely ticket student cars 30 seconds after the meter has expired. Who hasn’t felt frustrated, victimized, vengeful, resentful and full of rage when you return to your car to find yet another red striped envelope? Remember your reaction the last time you got a ticket? Then remember that this only cost you money, not time or dignity, and more likely than not, you were guilty of the offense accused. Now imagine how much stronger your feelings would be if you had parked legally, and instead of giving you a ticket, the officer searched your entire car, frisked you, handcuffed you and sat you in the back of the police car while he ran your plates. Why? Because you are a college student, and although you weren’t doing anything wrong this time, you probably have in the past or will in the future.

Before these problems can be addressed, we have to understand that there are some aspects of the problem that can’t be helped. There are people whose resentment toward the police stems from the fact that their livelihoods are threatened by police presence, whether it’s drugs or guns or prostitution. At the same time, there are police officers that are guilty of harassment and abuse far beyond any sanctioned profiling program. There is little to be said or done about criminals who complain about police, or police who violate the rules. We can only hope that the police who obey the rules can do their best to control and punish both groups.

It is time the well-meaning police stop relying on the color of people’s skin to determine the likelihood of criminal behavior. Aside from the legal and constitutional issues raised by racial profiling, the antagonistic relationship resulting from such policies will continue to breed mistrust and increase the likelihood of violent reactions like the ones last month. In the end, this resentment makes the job of the police harder to do, defeating the purpose of the program.