Portraits in Racial Profiling

When Clothes Make the Suspect

Nearly two hours before Amadou Diallo died of the barbaric consequences of alleged racial profiling by police, his four would-be assailants, who were cruising 174th Street in the Soundview section of the Bronx in search of a serial rapist, suddenly swerved their unmarked car at the corner of Croes and Fteley avenues.

In a never-before reported account of the cops' alleged actions leading up to the shooting that February night last year, Denise Marks, 37, who was driving by on her way home, remembers slowing down at about 11:20 p.m. after she saw four white men "jump out of the burnt-red, ugly, beat-up Taurus in a frenzy—like they were on drugs, on something really hyped." According to Marks, the men, who she suspected were cops in plainclothes, stopped and frisked a young black man, rummaged through his knapsack, and then let him go. Marks, who drove slowly past the cops, was about to turn into the parking lot of her nearby building when she saw her husband, Brian, approaching.

"I got scared because I feared he was next," Marks told the Voice. She pleaded with her husband, 36, to get in the car. Brian works for the city, but that night he was dressed down, wearing baggy camouflage army pants and an oversized, black-hooded sweattop. Marks's fear that her husband's "ghetto awareness wear" would trigger the white cops to stereotype him is not unfounded.

Profiler undercover: no one would mistake him for a suspect.
illustration: Gary Aagaard
Profiler undercover: no one would mistake him for a suspect.

About 50 white and black uniformed and undercover officers who participated in an unscientific survey by the Voice contend that "the felon look"—that "Tupac-thug-for-life" image and posture captured in this week's cover illustration—account for a majority of the stops and frisks. Using the composite sketch, the cops assigned high and low percentages to every piece of brand-name clothing, headgear, and footwear that they say contributes to the makeup of a racial profile and causes them to confront a person. Whites donning similar clothing rarely are stopped. In the cops' opinion:

 

* A baseball cap, worn at any angle, accounts for 10 percent of their stops.

* A bandanna, particularly red or blue, hints at gang involvement and accounts for 20 percent of stops.

* An XXL hooded sweattop, or "hoodie," accounts for 20 percent of stops.

* Sagging, baggy trousers, especially dungarees, account for 30 percent of stops.

* Exposed plaid boxer shorts account for 10 percent of stops.

* Expensive high-top sneakers—unlaced, suggesting that the person may have done prison time—account for 10 percent of stops.

 

Denise Marks felt that it was only a matter of time before the four antsy cops would be attracted by her husband's "perp colors"—as Brian would later describe his attire—and come after him. He got in the car and the couple drove off. Minutes later, Marks pulled into her building's parking lot. While her husband was locking the gate, Marks says she noticed the same cop car reversing on Croes Avenue, as if to come after him. "I guess they noticed we were together when my husband started walking toward me," she says. "By the time we got to the front entrance of my building, they were again stopping people."

The couple watched the cops stop and frisk a number of residents and then get back into their car and drive away without making any arrests. The next morning, the Markses turned on the TV and there they were. Officers Sean Carroll, 36, Edward McMellon, 27, Kenneth Boss, 28, and Richard Murphy, 27—the same four cops Marks had feared might mistake her husband for a common criminal—were being accused of gunning down an unarmed West African immigrant in a barrage of 41 bullets in the vestibule of his apartment just blocks from where they lived. After the defense won a change of venue, an Albany jury believed that Diallo's killers made a tragic mistake, and acquitted them last month.

The killing of Diallo and the shocking outcome of the trial bolstered charges made by African Americans and Latinos that the New York Police Department has been engaged in a long-standing "pattern and practice" of racial profiling, a widespread, law enforcement policy of targeting blacks and Latinos they suspect are likely to commit certain crimes. An investigation into the NYPD's crime-fighting tactics revealed that in 1997 and 1998 the mostly white Street Crime Unit—whose members boasted "We Own the Night"—stopped and searched 45,000 men, mostly African Americans and Latinos, while making a little more than 9000 arrests. Even though the rogue squad was disbanded in the face of public outcry, racial profiling by cops continues. For every 16 African Americans stopped and frisked, only one is arrested.

When blacks and Latinos aren't looking like "hoodies," or as in Brian Marks's case, dressed down, they might resemble the four Ivy League minority graduates who last week accused three white undercover cops of subjecting them to a night of terror as they drove through Manhattan. Their attorney, civil rights advocate Richard Emery, called the incident a classic case of racial profiling (it belongs in the category known as "Driving While Black"). In announcing a federal civil rights lawsuit against the NYPD, the two men and two women alleged that the officers used excessive force and unlawfully detained them. The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, charges that none of the plainclothes officers identified themselves as police or showed badges.

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