The Gray Area Between Racial Profiling And Policing: 5 Experts Weigh In On Criticisms, Concerns And Change

Like a lot of police work, this story is about shades of gray. 

It started when a 24-year-old took a seat on the back of a car at an apartment complex in Pompano Beach. It was just after 1 p.m. in late January last year—a pretty day, not even in the 80s. Watching nearby, a deputy began counting the minutes. 

Now, because the accused hasn’t been convicted and maybe, some would argue, shouldn’t be, we’ll call him by just his first name, Deonté. And in fairness to the deputy, we’ll do the same. 

After 30 minutes ticked by, Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputy Peter rolled up in his patrol car. He asked Deonté why he was loitering. 

It should be said that loitering is a strange law: You can’t be convicted of loitering for simply standing around, as long as you get lost when a cop asks you to move. Refuse to leave or flee, and it’s a second-degree misdemeanor. Deonté ran for it. 

It wasn’t Deonté’s first time facing arrest. His name appears 11 times in criminal court records, including a charge of distributing cocaine that landed him on probation for three years. 

But then, Deputy Peter has also found himself in trouble. The deputy admitted he was drunk when in 2013 he flipped an unmarked patrol car in a swale, according to BSO records. He could have faced prison time for a felony DUI. Instead, he served a 20-day suspension.

Deputy Peter ran after Deonté. They sprinted behind an apartment building, and Deputy Peter claimed Deonté dropped something. He caught Deonté shortly after and found a “bud of weed” in his pocket, according to an arrest affidavit. Deputy Peter then charged Deonté with four crimes: resisting an officer, loitering, marijuana possession and crack possession, for a baggie that was allegedly dropped along the way. 

Now perhaps you think because Deputy Peter said he found those drugs this whole incident is justified. Or maybe you think it’s OK because Deonté ran after a cop told him to stop. 

But there’s something far more complicated here. It’s unlikely that a white man sitting on a car for 30 minutes in a white neighborhood would earn attention from the police. And for every time cops find drugs in this type of scenario, how many others end with the harassment of a guy who was just looking for a place to enjoy a beautiful January day?

This might be one of today’s fundamental questions, whether it’s OK to occupy a neighborhood with police to stop the spread of drugs. We live in a time when President Donald Trump has said he supports stop-and-frisk policies that have been considered unconstitutional, and when Black Lives Matter protesters have put a spotlight on police shootings, and when it seems cops and the communities they protect appear more divided than ever. This is an era when cops and attorneys and politicians in South Florida are arguing about the line between protecting black communities, while also trying not to seem racist. 

So, how do you pull that off? Below, a few experts on this subject weigh in on how cops can keep civilians safe without unfairly targeting one community over another. 

Gordon Weekes is the chief assistant public defender.

The first time Gordon Weekes walked into a courtroom was while he was a student at Nova Southeastern University’s law school. As a black kid growing up in North Miami, he had plenty of tense times with police. But this changed him. “The first time I walk into court, I was just blown away,” Weekes recalls. “Law school never prepared you for the disparity.”

Before him were lawyers, court employees and a judge—all white. And there, in jailhouse orange, was a sea of nearly all black faces. It has been like that nearly every day since. Now, as chief assistant public defender in Broward County, and Deonté’s attorney, Weekes is working to change the broken system.

The problem, according to Weekes’ boss, Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, is that police have become an armed, occupying force in black neighborhoods. Officers arrest and harass children in minority communities for any minor infraction they can find, Finkelstein says. It’s the stuff that teenagers in the suburbs get away with, simply because there aren’t as many cops around, he notes. 

Howard Finkelstein, public defender in Broward County.

To back up this assertion, Weekes and Finkelstein set out to find statistics that show a bias against minority communities. They requested records from the Fort Lauderdale Police of all the times cops have stopped people for minor offenses. They honed in on a couple city ordinances: one that requires pedestrians to walk on the sidewalk and another that mandates bicyclists to register with the city. Of those busted for walking in the street, 96 percent were black. Of unregistered bicyclists, 94 percent were black.

The pattern continues behind the wheel of a car, where 70 percent of drivers cited for failing to wear a seat belt were black, Finkelstein says.

And it also happens when someone is simply standing still. In the Deonté arrest, Deputy Peter justified his loitering charge because of the Broward Sheriff’s Office’s “trespass program.” The program encourages apartment and business owners to put up official BSO no trespass signs, which essentially give police the power to question anyone who’s been in one place for too long. 

The numbers not only show a racial inequality that exists in policing, but they show just how bad it has become, Finkelstein contends. Arresting only black people 96 out of 100 times for one law is a statistic so skewed that it would be challenging to achieve that imbalance in a county where black people make up less than a third of the population, he says.​ It’s not that white people aren’t also breaking these ordinances and statutes, the public defenders argue, it’s just that police are using the law as an excuse to harass black people. 

“If you are black, it’s likely you are going to get stopped for walking, riding a bike or driving a car,” Finkelstein says. 

The police use these minor ordinances to justify searching people in the hopes that they might find drugs or that they’re wanted on a warrant, Weekes says. 

“You have these cases where [police] find drugs on someone after racially profiling them, but how many hundreds of other times are there that they don’t?” Weekes wonders. “They’re sending this message that it’s us against them, and they’re going to shake you down at their will, no matter what you’re doing.”

Broward County state Rep. Shevrin Jones

Shevrin Jones was driving to a friend’s house in Parkland when a police officer rolled up next to him. They made eye contact, and then the cop dropped back, following close behind. Jones, a state representative, is black. The officer was white. Jones wasn’t speeding and hadn’t done anything wrong. But he got himself ready for what might be coming.

“Right now, we live in a very racially charged time,” Jones says. “When you do see a cop, you have to stop and think, ‘OK, what do I say and how do I act if he pulls me over?’”

That time, the cop kept going. But he says there are plenty of times for others when it goes far worse. That’s why in 2014 he authored a bill that would have required all police officers in Florida to wear body cameras. The bill was a reaction to the police shootings that have made so many headlines in the past few years and that have polarized so many—some into thinking that cops are too harsh, to young black men especially, and others into thinking that too often police officers aren’t given the respect they deserve.

Jones’ bill was met quickly with criticism. Some feared the invasion of privacy of police officers wearing cameras while responding to someone’s home. Others feared it would be too easy for cops to turn off the cameras when they’re most needed. And many said it would be too costly for police departments to maintain the cameras, let alone keep the footage, as required by records laws.

While the bill was debated, a police officer in Palm Beach Gardens shot Corey Jones to death in October 2015 while Jones stood next to his broken-down Hyundai. The officer, Nouman K. Raja, now faces charges of manslaughter and attempted murder. 

The shooting inspired Shevrin Jones, no relation to Corey Jones, to keep working on his bill. Gov. Rick Scott signed a version of it into law last year. It requires police departments that use body cameras to develop written policies for when and how they’re used. It’s no doubt a watered-down version of the first bill, but Jones says it’s simply a first step. 

“We knew this was the start of the solution to a much bigger issue,” Jones says. “It’s a complicated issue, and hopefully now we’re headed in the
right direction.”

Frank Adderley, former Fort Lauderdale Police chief, takes it a bit personally when someone asks him about the issue of racial profiling. He grew up in a historically black northwest neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale, along Sistrunk Boulevard. Of African-American decent himself, Adderley started as a beat cop, here in his hometown, and as police chief, he lived in the same home where he grew up. So for someone to question his motives, he sees that as something of a personal attack. 

In December, Adderley took a job at BSO as colonel in charge of community affairs. During the 36 years he spent in the same police department as chief, he says he improved the policing of the neighborhood where he was raised. He says people have often complained to him that cops are harassing his neighbors, but Adderley contends they don’t know the truth. “You’ve got to realize, we have two very different sides to this story,” he says. 

For his side, Adderley says neighbors and people he’s known all his life have asked him to make his neighborhood safe. That means, he says, increased police presence. That means identifying the people who may be causing the trouble and trying to stop them from committing crimes again, he adds. 

As far as complaints about his officers cracking down on people not walking on the sidewalk or bicycling without a permit, Adderley says he has support for his actions. “This is basically a response to the African-American community, which has asked for our support,” Adderley says. “The people in my community, they want a safe place to live. They want us to enforce certain laws so that they can sleep safely at night.”

This approach has not always made him popular, and Adderley regularly found himself defending the way his department was run. A few months ago, Adderley says he was in a townhall-style meeting when someone got up and said that police in Fort Lauderdale need to do more outreach. “I said, ‘There are 20 projects we’re doing. Can you name one?’ He couldn’t name one of them,” Adderley recalls. 

One project, Adderley says, is the Neighborhood Action Teams, or NAT, whose job is to work on “crime suppression” in District 3, Adderley’s neighborhood. The organization hosts an event called “Seasons of Change,” which celebrates Black History Month and the strides the police department has made in racial equality. Adderley says whether the program prevents crime is unknown, but he does claim it’s efforts like these that create a better relationship between cops and the people they serve. 

Still, though, there are bad apples, Adderley admits. In March 2015, his department got international media attention after three police officers passed around racist texts. The messages included the N-word, a homemade video with former President Barack Obama in gold tooth caps, an “escaped slave” wanted poster and a police dog attacking a black man. The whole thing became public when an ex-fiancée to one of the officers sent the texts to Adderley. 

Overall, though, Adderley believes he has made things better. “We made some differences here that were very positive,” he says, especially in relationships the department built with leaders in his neighborhood. “You’ve got to realize one thing. I live in the black community. I have to face my neighbors.”

Maj. Kevin Shults with Broward Sheriff’s Office is in charge of department training. 

There was a time, early in his career, when Kevin Shults became disillusioned. It’s something a lot of officers face at some point—a feeling that everyone they encounter is doing something wrong, he says. 

Now, Shults is a major with BSO and in charge of the training program at one of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies. It’s his job to make sure deputies are prepared for that moment of disillusionment he faced—and learn how to spot it in others. 

“You go to them and you say, ‘Hey, you need to decompress,’” Shults says. “You might have to walk in a field of crap all day, but it doesn’t mean you need to think it smells good.”

This problem occurs when cops can no longer see anyone as anything but a bad guy. It’s the reason people think there are racists in law enforcement, Shults says. 

When cops become disillusioned like that, they treat everyone like a suspect, like everyone they encounter needs to be searched for contraband, even without reason to do so. Because many law enforcement agencies concentrate on black neighborhoods, it’s more likely that there will be disillusioned officers who people think are racists, Shults says. 

“There’s usually a version to the left and a version to the right, and then there’s the reality somewhere in the middle,” Shults says. 

What makes things worse, Shults says, is that too often the people police serve “get their agenda off social networking.” They have no clear understanding of how law enforcement works and what’s allowed under the law, he says. Shults also notes that the most misunderstood law is when a cop can search someone. 

“Stop-and-frisk is not illegal,” Shults says. “And a lot of people think it is.”

Actually, the Supreme Court found it constitutional in the 1968 decision Terry vs. Ohio. The decision allows a cop to stop someone if the officer has reasonable suspicion—that means that the officer thinks a suspect has, or will soon, commit a crime. One thing to note, however: “The stop has to be based on articulable facts,” Shults says. 

He tells his deputies this boils down to a simple test: another reasonable officer ought to be able to come to the same conclusion that the person has been involved in or is about to commit a crime. With that burden, a stop of a suspect should never be an issue of race, Shults says.

“What we profile are behaviors,” Shults says. “Whether you’re in a white neighborhood or black neighborhood or Hispanic neighborhood, it doesn’t matter. The question is, ‘Is what you’re doing suspicious?’”

When cops become disillusioned, it shouldn’t take much to pull them out of the mindset, Shults says. For him, it was simply having a buddy tell him he wasn’t thinking clearly. He came to realize that when you’re digesting society’s problems day after day, it’s a natural reaction to become jaded. “It’s a human dynamic that’s tough to control,” he says. 

“Facts before acts,” he likes to say to himself. And if officers keep that in mind, he believes they can follow the law—and avoid, hopefully, appearing like they’re making decisions based on race.

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