Portraits in Racial Profiling

When Clothes Make the Suspect

"For example, when two white officers get out of a car in Harlem, it is immediately clear to the . . . residents that they do not come from the neighborhood," he states. "They don't sleep there. They don't send their kids to school there. In the minds of the residents, 'Those officers don't know our problems.' "

A black undercover cop who participated in the Voice survey says his commanders often asked him and his colleagues "to dress the part," or, in his words, "look ghetto fabulous," when going out on sting operations. "We blend in nicely, but our white partners always seem to mistake us for the criminals," the insider says. "We've been shot at, injured, and killed by our own partners because of what we were wearing. Isn't that racial profiling?"

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

The officer says that the "friendly fire" killing in January of black Rhode Island police sergeant Cornel Young Jr. is a sobering reminder that it doesn't matter whether a cop is wearing hip hop clothes or is casually dressed. Young, 29, was off duty and in street clothes when he was shot by two white Providence policemen. He was coming to the aid of the officers, who had been confronted by a gunman. They mistook him for a suspect and shot him three times. Police said Young did respond when officers Michael Solitro III and Carlos Saraiva ordered him to drop his weapon. Solitro has only been on the force for a short time and Saraiva was in Young's academy class three years ago. Young was the son of Major Cornel Young Sr., the highest-ranking black officer on the Providence police force.

Lieutenant Eric Adams, the activist cop who heads 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, says members of his group are frequently cautioned not to consider a person's clothes as the primary reason for a stop. "I'm not saying that there aren't black cops involved in profiling; it's just that we make sure that our people don't look at clothes," says Adams. "You will find that black and Latino cops in our organization don't fall into that trap of profiling people, because many of them dress in the same manner while off duty." Adams says that prior to the Diallo shooting, members bombarded him with complaints about being stopped by white cops because they were either sporting dreadlocks, "wearing hip hop clothes," or driving around in a Lincoln Navigator, a Lexus, or Mercedes-Benz. "We started looking into this and came to the conclusion that if this is happening to us, imagine what our civilian African American brothers are going through."

Adams says his group is working on a survival guide that his members and other minorities can follow to avoid being a victim of racial profiling. "When you purchase hip hop clothes or a Navigator you do so with the understanding that you are going to be profiled," he declares. Meanwhile, Adams is urging young hip hop aficionados to be "conscious of the clothes you wear" and what part of their attire they choose to stash items such as a wallet or ID. "If they are carrying the ID in areas where it's believed by some officers that weapons are concealed, they risk the possibility of being assaulted or fatally shot."

Black and Latino community activists in the city have been eyeing with apprehension a Chicago ordinance that goes into effect this week, which calls for the city's police superintendent to designate specific "hot spots" of gang and drug activity after consulting with community leaders, residents, and others. Once an area has been designated a hot spot, people on the street can be ordered to disperse for three hours or risk arrest. Alderman Dorothy Tillman warned other black members of the city council that it was not whites who would be targeted by the ordinance, but "your son, my son. They stand on the corner in hip hop clothes. They're going to jail."

Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas

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