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On a more serious note I am being drawn into the issue of biased policing as part of my civilian oversight job. (I thought it was a volunteer gig, but they keep paying me.) Last night I listened to a presentation by three members of the community concerned about how racial profiling impacts African Americans (particularly young men), immigrants, and Muslims. We listened to pretty compelling anecdotes about how individuals were being victimized, not for their conduct, but for their race, religion, or civil status.

Immigrants get hit when they enter the criminal justice system at any level. If they don’t have legal status, they can be immediately deported since Immigration and Customs Enforcement – ICE – routine sweeps jails for illegals. If a legal immigrant is convicted of a crime he or she can be immediately deported despite their family ties, clean record, or time in this country.

Muslims have suffered since 911 because they are Muslims. Anyone with middle eastern looks taking pictures can be questioned and even arrested. Federal and state investigators who target suspicious Muslims are seen to be doing a good job. The panelist showed an advertisement from a security contractor retained by a local law enforcement agency offering counter terrorism courses. The training included the naming patterns for Arabic and Muslim children, religious practices, and the tenets of Islam. The panelist did not object to cultural awareness training, but not in the context of battling terrorism.

The panelist from the NAACP, who is also a defense attorney, provided several accounts of how his clients were targeted because of race. That racism exists in America and in all its institutions should come as no surprise.

Alas, these issues of immigrants and Muslims fall outside our board since they reflect federal initiatives and policies. We provide oversight to the Seattle PD and its policies and practices. One panelist complimented the Seattle police chief for “getting it” and notifying is officers that religion and physical appearance was not the basis for a criminal investigation. Another complimented the City Council for reconfiguring its professional accountability system of which my board is a part. So despite the concerning accounts of biased policing, Seattle either was not the problem, or was already taking firm steps to improve fairness and accountability.

What about racial profiling?

The Los Angeles PD’s civilian oversight made some interesting findings. Out of hundreds of complaints of biased policing only four were sustained and those were because the employees made some sort of biased comments. Without some demonstration of animus there was no way to prove the stop or action was based on race, etc. In Seattle no complaints of biased policing have been sustained and no employee was the subject of a bias complaint more than once.

LAPD decided that to guarantee fair policing it made more sense to focus on the constitutional basis for the stop or the arrest instead of pursuing prejudice. The police just can’t stop anyone, handcuff them, and seat them on the curb without some reasonable suspicion, probable cause, or hard evidence of a crime. So if a motorist suffers from issues of “rear license plate illumination” the traffic stop should be limited to investigating that infraction. Naturally if the officer sees something else amiss he or she should pursue it, but a bad bulb should not, by itself, take forty-five minutes to resolve.

So one of the issues our board will address is the perception that biased policing – racial profiling – is a problem. As for the feds, change is coming. Isn’t it?

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