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Black police group works to put an end to racial profiling
OAKLAND, Calif.-- As a black man, Ronald Davis believes he was once stopped by police simply because he was a minority driving a Mercedes-Benz. But as an undercover police officer, he has stopped young men on suspicion of drug-dealing because they wore baggy jeans, carried pagers -- and were black.
Now Davis, the sole black captain in the Oakland police force, is leading an effort by the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives to end racial profiling -- even in a changing political climate.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have added a new wrinkle to the racial profiling debate, with Middle Easterners raising concerns they have become targets. There are also indications that frightened Americans might be more willing to accept profiling in the name of national security.
A nationwide CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll conducted the weekend after the attacks found 58 percent of Americans would support requiring Arabs, including those who are U.S. citizens, to undergo more intensive security checks before boarding airplanes.
But the black law enforcement group, 9,000 members strong, isn't changing its stance. It still believes no matter which race is targeted, racial profiling is wrong, Davis said.
"We have a personal stake in it," Davis said. "I wear the badge. I've done car stops."
At the same time, when black officers take off their uniforms and are pulled over because of their race, "it's a dose of reality," he said. "When we get off duty, we are still African-Americans."
The cornerstone of the police group's efforts are training sessions, which began in January.
So far, the Alexandria, Va.-based group has conducted 15 sessions for officers of all races, including one meeting this week in Cincinnati, a city where three nights of rioting ensued after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black man this spring. A judge acquitted the officer of misdemeanor charges last month.
Racial profiling happens when officers allow biases to seep into policing, Davis said.
The black officers' group believes the problem should be attacked by emphasizing community service and supervisor accountability. It also wants more training for officers on when it's appropriate to use force.
Members of the group say they know what it's like to be profiled.
Fit for Mercedes
Davis remembers driving his fiancee's Mercedes in downtown Long Beach, Calif., a few years ago, looking for a restaurant. He passed a white policeman, who cut short a conversation and pulled Davis over, probably because "we didn't fit the Mercedes-Benz," Davis said.
"You feel very violated, very offended," Davis said. The indignity was worse because "these are my colleagues" who were doing the profiling, he said.
Jerry Oliver, police chief in Richmond, Va., recalls being stopped by his own officers when he was new to the city. They asked for his driver's license, but were reluctant to say why they stopped him.
"The only reason why I was stopped is because I live in an area that's predominantly white," Oliver said.
Occasionally, racial profiling is also used on white people in minority neighborhoods, police say.
When he was a police officer in Arizona, Oliver said he stopped a white person in a black and Korean neighborhood late at night. Oliver said he didn't know whether the person was lost, or perhaps seeking a prostitute.
"I didn't have any other information," he said. "But I did approach them purely because of their race, because they were white and they looked out of place."
In Oakland, Davis admits he's made similar stops.
"I'm not a racist," Davis said. But "I still applied my own stereotypes. At the time you're engaged in this activity you're really thinking you're doing the right thing."