Erika D. Smith

Racial profiling is real, and this is the only way to stop it

It’s sad, but most weeks, I find myself thinking how happy I am that I was born a black female instead of a black male.

It’s not that black women have it easy. We’re more likely to die of heart disease, be underrepresented in leadership roles and make less money than any other demographic group. But if I had been born male, I also know that by now I surely would’ve been yanked out of my sports car by some police officer making a wild accusation. As it is, at various points in my life, I’ve been followed across town, ordered around like a child and eyed suspiciously by men in uniform, even here in Sacramento.

I don’t need statistics to tell me that driving while black or walking while black is a thing. I’ve lived it.

Statistics do help convince skeptics, though. And so I’ve read articles from my Bee colleagues with interest and disgust, if not surprise, about how the Sacramento Police Department stops black people – particularly men – at a disproportionate rate.

How disproportionate?

African Americans make up only about 13 percent of the city’s driving-age population but 32 percent of the traffic stops. Meanwhile, black pedestrians are 5 times more likely than others to receive a citation for jaywalking.

The situation is so bad that black drivers told The Bee’s Anita Chabria and Phillip Reese that they’ve been pulled over for reasons as stupid as playing loud music and having an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror. Some said they sold cars that looked too expensive for a black person to be driving.

“I’ve had so many of those incidents, I use Uber,” said Votie Patterson, a Pocket resident.

And let’s not forget Nandi Cain, the young black man who got the snot beat out of him for crossing the street in Del Paso Heights.

Asked to explain, Sacramento Police Department spokesman Officer Matt McPhail insisted the traffic stop data is “incomplete” and “inadequate” because it “doesn’t take into account all the different factors that led up to whether or not a stop is made.” Ultimately, he said, stops are made when violations are observed.

On jaywalking, spokeswoman Officer Linda Matthew said the decision on who to ticket “has absolutely nothing to do with race. If you have a suspect that is not following the law and commits a jaywalking infraction, the reason why they are stopped is not because of their race.”

Uh huh. Their explanations sound tone deaf and hollow, just like the explanations from other police departments across the country that have had to confront uncomfortable questions about bias and racial profiling.

And yet, McPhail and Matthew do have a point. To determine whether racial profiling is actually happening in a city, one must take into account the higher rates of crime in minority neighborhoods. Otherwise, data points about traffic stops are just suggestive but powerful circumstantial evidence.

The only way to get to the whole truth – one that will be believed even by good cops who are reluctant to think ill of their colleagues or acknowledge their own implicit biases – is through the collection of better data.

California, to its credit, is actually working on this, zigging yet again where the federal government under President Donald Trump is zagging.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has all but walked away from police reform, ordering his Department of Justice to rethink federal consent decrees with cities in which the Obama administration found unconstitutional patterns of racial discrimination and excessive force in law enforcement.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, meanwhile, is putting the finishing touches on a list of proposed regulations designed to ferret out police bias and racial profiling, as prescribed by Assembly Bill 953.

Starting in January, the state’s largest law enforcement agencies will be required to record and report additional characteristics about the drivers and pedestrians they stop. The smallest departments will start doing the same by 2023. Sacramento is somewhere in the middle.

The regulations, as they stand now, are truly exhaustive – and that’s a good thing.

Cops must report the age, race and gender of the citizens they encounter. They also must explain the reason for every stop, why they were patrolling the neighborhood in the first place, if the stop resulted in a citation or arrest, and if a search was conducted and, if so, what was found.

The idea is to fill in the blanks so knowing exactly why Sacramento police stop so many black drivers, for example, isn’t a guessing game. After all, that is what McPhail said we at The Bee just don’t understand with our “incomplete” and “inadequate” data.

Becerra’s office gets the final say on the regulations. On Wednesday, he said a decision will be made “soon” on whether to keep the list as robust as recommended by the Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board or to scale it back a bit.

Of course, some in law enforcement would rather report less information on people who get stopped, not more.

Kings County Sheriff David Robinson, who is also a member of the advisory board, wrote a letter to the attorney general’s office in January, fretting about how the regulations will work on the ground. He’s worried it will take officers too long to input all the data points and, therefore, cost too much in overtime.

“I would like the Attorney General to scale back the regulations to the original list as outlined in the final version of AB 953,” he wrote, according to The Fresno Bee. “The draft regulations have morphed into more than 200 possible data collection points.”

True, but weakening the proposed regulations would be a mistake.

Even in this age of alternative facts, statistics have a funny way of making skeptics understand that, just maybe, black people aren’t crazy for insisting that racial profiling happens – even if the practice ends up being the result of a misguided policy and not widespread racism. Statistics also have a funny way of becoming the foundation of agreed-upon solutions.

Such conversions have happened in other states that have added robust reporting requirements for police officers, including in Connecticut. There’s no reason it can’t happen in California, too.

Because, right now, the Sacramento Police Department is dismissively asking the public to swallow information like the characters in George Orwell’s “1984.”

“Doublethink,” he wrote, “means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

“Yes,” Sacramento police spokespeople are saying, “officers are pulling black people over at a disproportionate rate. But you don’t understand. There’s no racial profiling going on. Believe us!”

I’m not that gullible. I want more information.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith

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