Special to South Florida Times
BOCA RATON — When asked if he has ever been subjected to racial profiling, Robert Hazard is quick to answer, “I’m a black man in America. Of course I’ve been racially profiled.”
Hazard, 62, of West Palm Beach, like many other black men, insists racial profiling is so common that it could be considered a rite of passage for black males.
“I’m a black man over 60,” said Hazard, implying that it is nearly impossible to have reached his age without being racially profiled.
“I’ve been traffic stopped. I’ve been searched because, I believe, I was a black man going into a neighborhood where people weren’t familiar with me. I was harassed and asked to produce documents, such as a passport, that I didn’t think was necessary for a traffic stop,” Hazard said.
His comments came after he attended a workshop on racial profiling, titled, “Re-thinking Racially Biased Policing: A Science-Based Perspective,” held recently at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. Police tell a different story about profiling from that of Hazard. Everybody has an excuse as to why they shouldn’t have been stopped, say many officers. And therein lies the problem, says Lorie Fridell, a criminologist who led the workshop.
For more than a decade, Fridell said, she has conducted extensive interviews in communities across the country with civilians and police officers, with the same result: No matter the city or state: members of the community view the issue one way, while officers view it another.
“People in the community view racial profiling as coming from ill-intentioned officers who are racist or power-mongers. Many minorities think that there are many bad, ill-intentioned policemen out there,” Fridell told the workshop attendees.
That viewpoint has caused police departments to be understandably defensive, she said, adding, “The community needs to understand that what the police have heard for the last 10 years is that they’re all a bunch of racists – and that’s why we have this problem [of racial profiling]. Is there any wonder why there’s an incredible amount of defensiveness on the part of police officers around this issue?
“Police look around and they don’t see lots of bad, ill-intentioned officers in their midst. The result? The police think the problem isn’t that big and that they’ve been unfairly characterized.”
Both viewpoints are distorted, said Fridell, who travels the country training police officers and other law enforcement personnel on racial profiling.
Fridell, who has developed curriculums on the topic for the Department of Justice, said the truth lies somewhere in the middle of the contrasting viewpoints and her goal is to get officers and community members to “re-think” racially biased policing, which she defines as “police inappropriately considering race and ethnicity in deciding with whom and/or how to intervene.”
One critical element that most people don’t consider when addressing the issue is human nature, Fridell said. “Science tells us that well-meaning officers could very well produce racially-biased policing, because their human biases impact their perception and therefore impacts their decisions,” she said.
The community and the police would deal with the issue more effectively if they can accept that humans have biases that impact their daily interactions.
“We need to move away from the narrow view that racially biased policing is practiced only by ill-intentioned officers – to an expanded view that even the best officers, because they are human, might manifest bias in policing. And even the best agencies, because they hire human beings, might engage in racially biased policing,” she said.
Riviera Beach Police Commander Leonard B. Mitchell agreed that training is vital to dealing with racial profiling. “Learning and exchanging ideas is always good, especially with this topic. This issue created a hotbed of activity for those departments that were not prepared for it,” he said. “We have a forward thinking administration that understands that.”
Asked if African-American men such as Hazard are justified in saying they are frequently profiled because of their race, Mitchell, himself an African American, replied, “It is something that does occur. But was it totally racially motivated or was it the officer’s inexperience?”
Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Michael Gauger said his department is addressing the issue from the top, not just with patrol officers. He said 10 of his upper administrative staff were attending the workshop.
“We need to establish that there needs to be communication from both sides,” Gauger said. “It’s not just a police problem. It’s not just a community problem. It’s a problem that we have to work out together. It’s always better – the more we can educate ourselves on all the facets relating to profiling and community interactions.”
Hazard, who says he’s been stopped for reasons he can’t explain, “other than being a black man in a car,” is skeptical about such workshops having long lasting impact. Fridell’s theory, he said, “ just excuses it.”
“If it’s human behavior, then it’s not going to change,” Hazard said. “Every time someone who is not black sees a black person – in my opinion – they stereotype us based on what they see on TV or what they read in the newspaper.”
“Stereotyping has been embedded in this country for hundreds of years. I don’t see any expectation for changes in the police department. I don’t know if there will be enough workshops to make a dent in it,” said Hazard, referring to the four-hour course that was open to law enforcement, social agencies and the public. Hazard said racial profiling transcended the police department and was widespread in all segments of the population, but he was still hopeful that things would eventually get better. But, he added, as far as profiling by officers was concerned, “It won’t go away.”
Fridell agreed with that position. “There will always be some bad policemen out there, just like in any other profession,” she said.
Racial profiling is a subject that the American Civil Liberties Union frequently has to deal with, said Geoffrey Kashdan, vice-president of the Palm Beach County ACLU. “It’s an issue I’m greatly concerned about,” he said, after attending the session.
The workshop on Nov. 12 was presented by Florida Atlantic University’s Diversity Committee and Catalyst for Justice, an organization that exclusively addresses racial profiling. Jane Tierney, founder and CEO, said the group was formed after the national conversation on racial profiling that followed the July 2009 encounter between Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley.
Tierney says the group will continue to bring speakers and experts to South Florida to address the issue. “Our goal is to make Palm Beach County and South Florida the model community in our country in this respect,” she said. “Every program that makes sense and is applicable to our community, we want to bring it here and implement it.”
She said many of the law enforcement agencies that attended the workshop are inquiring about future sessions. In addition to PBSO and Riviera Beach, other South Florida law enforcement agencies were represented at the workshop, including the police departments of West Palm Beach, Hallandale Beach, Florida Atlantic University and the Palm Beach School District.
For more information on Catalyst for Justice, e-mail Jane Tierney at email@example.com.
Daphne Taylor may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Robert Hazard