Racial profiling suit filed in Philadelphia, but the problem persists across our nation

It’s 2010, and still across the United States, people are stopped by police for no other reasons than the color of their skin or that they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The problem is that police departments and cities across the nation still insist on stopping people based on “profiles” of observable behavior or actions that could indicate criminal activity.

In these cases, though, there’s not yet any evidence of any criminal behavior. It’s just a guess or a gut feeling by a police officer, but under our system of law, that’s just not enough.

It’s simply got to stop.

Image credit: © iStockphoto.com/jtgriffin07

Today, a lawsuit was filed in Philadelphia on behalf of eight African-American and Latino men who were allegedly stopped by Philadelphia police officers based on their skin color or ethnicity, according to the suit, which was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania.

The federal class action lawsuit alleges that these kinds of incidents occur thousands of times a year in the city as part of its stop-and-frisk policy, which was initiated by then-incoming Mayor Michael Nutter as part of crime reduction and public safety efforts.

“Multiple civil rights and community groups, including the ACLU of Pennsylvania, have raised concerns with the Nutter administration about the policy,” the ACLU said in a statement.

“Mayor Nutter repeatedly promised that this policy would be carried out in a way that respected the Constitution,” said Mary Catherine Roper, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “But instead of stopping people suspected of criminal activity, the police appear to be stopping people because of their race.”

If this is occurring to the extent that the lawsuit claims, it is abhorrent and must end.

“The stops, frisks, searches and detentions by Philadelphia Police Department officers are often based on constitutionally impermissible considerations of race and/or national origin in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment., the suit alleges. “The victims of such racial and/or national origin profiling are principally Black and Latino men.”

The suit alleges that these kinds of searches and stops are being conducted without reason, other than being based solely on race and/or national origin.

Of the 253,333 such police stops in 2009, more than 183,000, or 72.2%, involved African-Americans, according to ACLU figures that were obtained from the city. In comparison, African-Americans make us only 44% of the city’s population, according to ACLU figures, while only 8.4% of the 253,333 stops led to an arrest.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include State Representative Jewell Williams and Mahari Bailey, a 27-year-old Philadelphia resident and attorney. Bailey was stopped and questioned while driving on four separate occasions over 18 months, the lawsuit alleges. He was charged with driving with tinted windows, but the charge was later thrown out in traffic court.

In 1996, Philadelphia was sued by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for profiling practices, which led to changes that brought new  policy and training initiatives to make officers sensitive to these problems, according to the ACLU.

The problems, however, persist.

Racial profiling cases have been occurring all over our nation for decades, according to the Racial Profiling Data Collection Resource Center at Northeastern University in Boston. The Center has been tracking such cases in Arizona, Florida, Texas, Utah and California, as well as other states.

Profiling by law enforcement officials in the U.S. began in the 1970s to help identify and catch drug traffickers, according to Resource Center. But a 1998 U.S. Department of Justice investigation into racial profiling practices within the New Jersey State Police “raised awareness of the issue and defined racial profiling in the public eye as the practice of singling out members of racial or ethnic groups for relatively minor traffic or petty criminal offenses in order to question and/or search them for drugs, guns, or other contraband.”

Since then, “police departments have begun to analyze their own activities and communities have begun to demand more police accountability around the issue of race,” according to the Resource Center. Many departments are becoming much more sensitive about the matter under their own initiatives.

More than 20 states have since passed laws to prohibit racial profiling or began collecting official data on such stops so they can be tracked for patterns that could indicate problems, according to the Research Center.

This is not just a Philadelphia problem.

It’s everywhere.

And it is intolerable in a free nation and must be stopped to comply with laws that provide freedoms for us all.

Every opportunity to investigate these matters should be undertaken and exposed until racial profiling is no longer allowed to be performed by our law enforcement personnel against our citizens.

The ACLU has produced a handy and helpful guide for any citizen to know what their rights are if they are ever stopped by law enforcement officials, whether it is a racial profiling case or for any other reason.

The ACLU guide is also available as a .pdf file so it can be easily carried with you. Among its best advice, taken directly from the guide:

– You have the right to remain silent. If you wish to exercise that right, say so out loud.
– You have the right to refuse to consent to a search of yourself, your car or your home.
– If you are not under arrest, you have the right to calmly leave.
– You have the right to a lawyer if you are arrested. Ask for one immediately.
– Regardless of your immigration or citizenship status, you have constitutional rights.

– Do stay calm and be polite.
– Do not interfere with or obstruct the police.
– Do not lie or give false documents.
– Do prepare yourself and your family in case you are arrested.
– Do remember the details of the encounter.
– Do file a written complaint or call your local ACLU if you feel your rights have been violated.

Stay calm. Don’t run. Don’t argue, resist or obstruct the police, even if you are innocent or police are violating your rights. Keep your hands where police can see them.
Ask if you are free to leave. If the officer says yes, calmly and silently walk away. If you are under arrest, you have a right to know why.
You have the right to remain silent and cannot be punished for refusing to answer questions. If you wish to remain silent, tell the officer out loud. In some states, you must give your name if asked to identify yourself.
You do not have to consent to a search of yourself or your belongings, but police may “pat down” your clothing if they suspect a weapon. You should not physically resist, but you have the right to refuse consent for any further search. If you do consent, it can affect you later in court.

Stop the car in a safe place as quickly as possible. Turn off the car, turn on the internal light, open the window part way and place your hands on the wheel.
Upon request, show police your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance.
If an officer or immigration agent asks to look inside your car, you can refuse to consent to the search. But if police believe your car contains evidence of a crime, your car can be searched without your consent.
Both drivers and passengers have the right to remain silent. If you are a passenger, you can ask if you are free to leave. If the officer says yes, sit silently or calmly leave. Even if the officer says no, you have the right to remain silent.

Remember: police misconduct cannot be challenged on the street. Don’t physically resist officers or threaten to file a complaint.
Write down everything you remember, including officers’ badge and patrol car numbers, which agency the officers were from, and any other details. Get contact information for witnesses. If you are injured, take photographs of your injuries (but seek medical attention first).
File a written complaint with the agency’s internal affairs division or civilian complaint board. In most cases, you can file a complaint anonymously if you wish.
Call your local ACLU or visit www.aclu.org/profiling.

Racial profiling is a serious violation of your rights as a citizen.

If you or a loved one is profiled by the police anywhere, you should consider talking with an attorney about the incident.

We here at MyPhillyLawyer are always ready to stand with you in such cases.