Outside view: End racial profiling by cops

By HUGH PRICE, Special to United Press International   |   Feb. 11, 2002 at 12:05 PM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 7 (UPI) -- The news report in the Jan. 31 New York Times, although in fact written in a perfectly straightforward fashion, seemed to have a surrealistic quality to it, as if one were looking at a distorted mirror image of a very specific American scene.

Certainly the subject matter was familiar. Written under the headline, "Black Musician, Beaten by Spanish Police, to Miss Concert," the story said that Rodney Mack, an African-American who is the principal trumpet player for the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra, was recently beaten so badly by four plainclothes police officers in a Barcelona, Spain, garage that he would be unable to appear at a scheduled Feb. 1 concert in New York's Carnegie Hall.

As the Times described it, two weeks ago Mack, who is a cousin of the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, was walking toward his rented Mercedes in an underground garage in Barcelona after an orchestra rehearsal.

Dressed in a suit and tie, he noticed four men wearing jeans and leather jackets walking quickly and wordlessly toward him. Another moment, and they had jumped him, thrown him to the ground and begun to beat him. Thinking he was being mugged, he shouted in Spanish and English that they could take his wallet. Instead, they kept beating him, then arrested him.

Mack suffered various bruises to his body, a neck injury, and a cut to his inner lip, an injury of special concern to a trumpet player.

In the uproar that followed, the police claimed they had identified themselves and were seeking to question Mack because, in the words of a Barcelona police official, he fitted the "characteristics" of a car thief who had been plaguing the garage.

That turned out to mean that the car thief was said to be black and about Mack's height.

After discovering that Mack wasn't a car thief, the police charged him with resisting arrest and attacking a police officer.

The story has received major media coverage in Spain, and the Spanish government has promised an investigation. Mack said he intends to sue the police for assault and wrongful arrest.

"The reason I'm going to press charges," he told the Times, "is that it seemed they wanted me just to take the beating and then go home. I just want to prevent that from happening to someone else."

This startling story from abroad underscores that the inherent injustice of racial profiling is often accompanied by physical brutality -- and reminds us what a profound feeling of betrayal it provokes in those who are its victims.

That breach of trust accounts for the extraordinary wariness, shown in poll after poll, African-Americans have of the police. That trust will never be repaired as long as racial profiling is tolerated.

In fact, just this week there were three fresh reminders of the breadth of the problem of police racial profiling.

In New Jersey, state officials agreed to pay $800,000 to settle a lawsuit filed against a state police officer by an African-American woman for a 1998 arrest at a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop that resulted from the trooper mistaking her for someone else. After handcuffing her, the officer lifted the woman, who is 5 feet, 2 inches tall and 120 weighs pounds, by her hair and pushed her face first to the ground. She sustained a fractured jaw, several broken teeth and facial cuts so severe they left permanent scarring.

In the suburban district of Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside Washington, a new study has found that black motorists are still being stopped by police at a significantly higher rate than their proportion of the country population.

The data charted more than 41,000 traffic stops police made from April through September 2001. Blacks who make up 15 percent of the county's population and 14 percent of its registered drivers, comprised 26 percent of those stopped by the police. The percentage was only slightly less than that for the preceding 6-month study period.

Finally, a committee of state officials and civic leaders in Delaware has agreed to a pilot program under which the Delaware State Police will begin collecting demographic data on traffic stops last spring. The effort was proposed by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and by the Urban League's local affiliate, the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League.

The plan was announced by Delaware Secretary of State James L. Ford, who said he believes state troopers do not target motorists on the basis of race or ethnicity and that he expects the data to show that.

Civil rights leaders disagree. But Tony Allen, president of the National Urban League's local affiliate, praised the state's willingness to participate, telling the Wilmington News Journal that the state's effort will "build a certain amount of community trust [of the state police] that is not necessarily there."

Rebuilding that trust is what the reform effort to eliminate racial profiling is all about.


Hugh Price is president of the National Urban League.

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