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Cops, stops and race

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Aug 12, 2001, 3:56:30 PM8/12/01
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Cops, stops and race

NICK COLEMAN

Payne Avenue, corner of Jenks, 1:35 a.m. on a drizzly Saturday on
St. Paul's East Side. Police officer John Linssen has stopped a blue
1987 Chevy that is traveling slowly -- too slowly -- with its bright
lights on.

I have been riding with Linssen, playing a ride-along game, trying to
guess the driver's race and gender each time Linssen stops an errant
motorist. I have been wrong almost every time, sometimes
comically. At the first stop, after Linssen has followed a car with a
burned-out headlight for six blocks and shined his spotlight on the
back of the driver's head, I confidently predict that the driver is a
middle-age white woman with gray hair. She turns out to be a
23-year-old African-American whose dark hair reflects the white
light so brightly it looks white itself.

Racial profiling -- police stopping motorists disproportionately by
race -- is a hot-button issue. So I have decided to go on three
ride-alongs with the cops -- including one alongside an
African-American officer -- to see what it looks like on the streets.
It turns out to be more complicated than I had imagined. Still, as
Linssen pulls up behind that Chevy on Payne Avenue and we get
out of his squad car to approach the driver, I believe I have this one
nailed: Linssen's spot hits the driver from behind, illuminating a
broad-rimmed hat like my grandmother wore.

"Old lady," I predict. "White woman. Doesn't even know she has
her brights on."

Wrong again. The driver turns out to be a slight, middle-age
African-American man giving off a heavy smell of alcohol. His name
is Dwight, and he has no driver's license. In fact, he hasn't had one
for 10 years. He has just gotten out of the Ramsey County Jail for
the 36th time. As Linssen waits for another squad to bring a
portable Breathalyzer, Dwight tells me he was beaten by police
after a 1996 arrest.

"I was talking s - - - and the officers said they were tired of my
mouth, and I said one more word and they beat the s - - - out of
me," Dwight recounts matter-of-factly while Linssen listens
impassively. "They almost broke my leg. But I brought it on myself.
So that's why I left that s - - - alone.

"I'm just a poor black guy. I'm 41 years old and I'm just trying to
live, that's all. I had a few drinks tonight -- I stayed (at the bar)
because I'm alone. I can't get my license because I can't pay the
fines -- the fines is so high I can't afford to pay them. The tickets
were just for being stopped for nothing. If I was a white guy, I'd get
a better play. I didn't get into no other trouble other than that. I got
a perfect record."

Dwight asks repeatedly if he can just go home. He says he was
almost home and that he has a driver's permit. Linssen, who has
checked Dwight's record on his computer terminal, knows better:
"No you don't, Dwight," he says sharply. "You're revoked!"

Dwight's not going home. He blows a 0.19 on the Breathalyzer,
meaning he has a blood alcohol content almost twice the limit.
Dwight is going to jail a 37th time.

"Oh, man, you ain't showing me no love at all," Dwight moans from
the back as Linssen drives to headquarters to book him and have
him take an official breath test. "I wasn't driving no f - - - ing
drunk,
what are you talking about? You're really putting a hurt on me, man,
you taking me to jail for a DUI, man. ... God gonna get you, the
man upstairs know what you did. I'm not drunk at all. You always
treat a nigger like there's still slavery, anyway. If I was a white boy,
you'd say, "Go home.'

"Dirty mother - - - - - - ! Dirty mother - - - - - - !"

A TENSE BACKDROP

I

t hasn't been an easy year to be a St. Paul police officer. Since the
racial profiling issue arose last winter, cops who make traffic stops
for such infractions as speeding, drunken driving or equipment
problems have been under intense scrutiny. In June, Police Chief
William Finney reached an agreement with civil rights leaders that
was intended to defuse suspicions that some cops stop motorists
based on their race.

Historically, minorities have complained that white officers have
threatened, beaten and abused people of color. St. Paul has not
been notorious for prejudice on the police force. Nevertheless, it's
hard to ignore the national debate over police brutality and racial
profiling -- it was only this spring that a police shooting of an
unarmed black man led to rioting in Cincinnati. If you raise the
profiling issue in conversation with African-American men, many
will give you horror stories of being stopped, intimidated or worse,
simply for being black. And when you're black and are pulled over
by white cops, it can be hard sometimes to separate racial
appearances from policing realities.

Kellen Burch, a 19-year-old African-American football player at
the University of South Dakota, was pulled over near his parents'
Summit-University home in St. Paul on the Fourth of July, mistaken
by police for a gang member wanted for questioning in a shooting.
The scene, as Burch describes it, was scary.

Burch says he and three friends were held at gunpoint, handcuffed,
taken to squad cars and interrogated for 30 minutes before being let
go. One officer -- Burch says he thinks it was a Ramsey County
sheriff's deputy -- threatened to "beat the s - - - out of you, you
little black mother - - - - - - ." Burch's mother wants him to file a
complaint, but he isn't sure if he will. He doesn't know the names of
the officers who stopped him.

The treatment Burch says he received from a deputy is
"unacceptable," said a spokesman for the Ramsey County Sheriff's
Department, Mark Naylon, who said Burch should file a complaint
about the incident if he can identify the deputy. Identifying law
enforcement officers always has been iffy, however.

By next month, that may change. Under the terms of Finney's
agreement with the NAACP, officers will have to give their business
cards to those they stop. They also must advise motorists that they
can refuse an officer's request to search them or their vehicle, and
how to file a complaint with the department. The agreement has
been hailed by community leaders but has not gone over well with
many cops. Some say it has branded all cops as racist and that
Finney, an African-American, conceded too much.

The frustration isn't buried very deep. Officers I spoke with
complained that the racial profiling debate has created a climate in
which some drivers object to being stopped at all by police, no
matter what the infraction. Lawbreakers, cops contend, have begun
to use the issue as "a counter-maneuver" to try to evade a ticket or
an arrest.

FIGHTING WORDS

"I

'm tired of being called a racist when I'm not,'' officer Chris Stark
tells me during a recent afternoon roll call at the Police Department's
East Team headquarters at Payne Avenue and Minnehaha. "I'm just
trying to do my job."

Stark, who is white, says he recently stopped an African-American
woman who was driving 45 miles per hour in a 30 zone. She was
driving without a driver's license. But when Stark asked her to step
out of the car, he says, she refused, cursed at him and accused him
of stopping her because she was black. He wrote her a ticket and
watched her drive away, angry that she had ignored his order but
fearful of pushing the issue.

"She was laughing as she drove away," he says. "I tell you, if that
had been you" -- meaning me, a white man -- "and you had refused
to get out of the car, I'd have yanked you out the window."

I don't doubt it. Sometimes, policing requires the use of force or the
threat of force to maintain order. As one cop said, he has a
three-point plan in an encounter with a citizen: "First I'm going to
ask you, then I'm going to tell you, and then I'm going to make
you."

The profiling controversy has made everything more complicated.
Instead of that simple three-point plan, officers now find themselves
having to deal with sensitive racial questions before they get to the
police work. And the cops I met on the East Side -- almost to a
man and woman -- don't like it.

"Society expects us to do their dirty work," says officer Tim
Bradley, who won the Police Department's Officer of the Year
award in the spring. "But then they get mad at us when we do. Now
we've got a 6-foot leash put on us by the NAACP. If I (stop) a
person of color, I've got to dot all my i's and cross all my t's. It's
forcing us to be reactive, rather than proactive. None of us support
racial profiling -- it's wrong. We admit that, and we want to be held
accountable. But we only want to be held accountable in the right
way."

I spent a recent day riding (pedaling, actually) with Bradley and
officer Murray Prust as they patrolled the East Side on bicycles.
Bradley, a 26-year veteran, is a conscientious officer who talks
kindly but gruffly to schoolchildren blocking traffic, blows his police
whistle and shouts instructions at motorists to turn their radios down
to a decent decibel. He worries that the profiling issue is hampering
the work of police officers. Known for his innovative ideas, Bradley
(whose father also was a career St. Paul cop) thinks video cameras
in every squad car would be a better plan.

"I'd rather have cameras record every arrest than be
second-guessed by an organization that knows nothing about law
enforcement. And that would be the NAACP," Bradley says. "If we
had a tape of every arrest, I think people would see that we do our
job based not on color but on behavior."

Nathaniel Khaliq, president of the St. Paul branch of the NAACP,
says his organization favors video recording of police stops. But he
says that technology alone can't solve the problem and that police
must learn to cooperate more with the community, especially
communities of color. If cops are complaining that they have to deal
with the concerns of minorities and change the way they work, well,
Khaliq says, welcome to the world.

"The police don't like us looking over their shoulders? We were
already looking over their shoulders," Khaliq says. "I would think
they'd embrace a partnership to try to resolve these problems.
Communities of color have endured a lot, and there's more than
enough evidence in St. Paul to show that people of color --
especially African-Americans -- have been targeted by law
enforcement agencies for selective enforcement. We have suffered
abuse and mistreatment around the country, and St. Paul is not an
exception."

Racial concerns flared last month after the Rondo Days celebration
when police dispersed a crowd of African-American young people
and an 18-year-old black man was arrested and forcefully subdued
by half a dozen cops. Chief Finney has denied accusations that the
man was beaten, and troops in the field -- white and black -- echo
his conviction that racial bias was not on display. If anything, they
say, too much sensitivity to racial concerns helped lead to the
trouble. The cops, some say, hung back too long for fear of being
labeled insensitive while the situation deteriorated and groups of
young people blocked traffic and milled around in the streets.

"We took a lot more than we should have," says officer David
Quast, who was at the scene. "If I was a citizen who knew nothing
about law enforcement and I was watching the police letting these
kids run block to block, pushing people over and knocking them
down, I would have been embarrassed for the St. Paul Police
Department."

Maybe Quast is right. Society doesn't want police to fight a
problem to a standstill. We want them to prevail.

"We're trained not just to defuse the situation," says Officer
Bradley. "They teach us at the police academy that the city has to
win. We have to win. Losing is not acceptable."

In essence, cops say, the 18-year-old arrested after Rondo Days
declared war when he kicked a squad car and (as he admitted)
called a cop "a mother - - - - - - ." Theoretically, cops are
supposed to ignore taunts, including the M word. In reality, they
admit, it can be hard to turn the other ear. When there's a crowd
and the police are struggling to restore order, an obscenity can
become a "fighting word" that incites others and escalates tensions.

"He pushed the buttons that caused the conflict," Bradley says of
the youth's foul language. "The book says you gotta take it. But if
you call me that, you definitely have my attention. Because if I
diagrammed what the word means in court -- well, I don't think the
judge would let me go very far, would he?"

WHO IS DRIVING?

T

he everyday tension between police and those who are being
policed has been ratcheted up a few notches by allegations that
some cops have a penchant for stopping minorities.

As I learned while riding with officer Linssen, cops often don't
know the race of a driver before they decide to make a stop. Many
stopped drivers, however, turn out to be minorities -- at a much
higher rate than the percentage of minorities living in the city. I'm
surprised, riding with the cops at night, at how many of the people
we see are African- Americans.

I'm usually wrong guessing the race of drivers we stop because
more drivers are minorities than I ever imagined. The reason is
simple, cops say, although it hasn't been discussed much during the
profiling debate.

"The demographics change after the sun goes down," growls one
East Side cop. "There are fewer people on the street, but a higher
percentage of them are minorities."

What happens after a driver is stopped -- whether he is asked to
submit to a search, for example -- is also a contentious topic, with
community leaders arguing that minority drivers are too often
searched and cops countering that minority drivers wind up being
searched more often because they often have no ID, driver's license
or insurance.

"I don't know why that's true," says one officer. "Maybe it's a
socioeconomic thing -- poor people who don't have jobs have cars
with equipment problems or don't have licenses or can't afford to
pay their tickets or their insurance so they lose their licenses. ... I
can't do anything about any of that. I'm just supposed to enforce the
law."

"We're oversensitive," says officer Bradley. "But we don't stop you
because you're black. We stop you because your driving is out of
control. We gotta keep up the fight -- if we stop doing what we're
doing, then the bad guys have won."

Many officers worry that their safety may be compromised by the
distractions of dealing with the profiling dispute.

"You get distracted when you walk up to a car and the first thing
you do is get into a p - - - - - - match -- "You only stopped me
because I'm black,' " says Ed Dion, an East Side patrol officer. "I
can walk away from someone if they call me a racist, because I
know I'm not. But it only takes a split second for someone to get a
jump on you. And if you're worrying about what race the driver is
instead of whether there's someone in the back seat or whether
you're in a "kill zone' (the area around the car where officers are
especially vulnerable to fire from an occupant of a stopped vehicle),
well, you know what? I got three kids I'd like to see graduate from
high school."

WHO IS FAIR?

I

t's not just white cops who say the profiling issue can be blown out
of proportion. Adrian Saffold, 39, is an African-American East Side
patrol officer who agrees with his comrades that most cops are just
trying to do a difficult job as best they can.

"People always think that's the reason they're pulled over --
because they're minority," he tells me as I ride with him on a recent
midnight shift. "One guy I gave a ticket to told me I just did it
because he was Asian. I treat everybody the same. When I'm using
my laser (speed detector), I have no way of telling what color
someone is; I only know they're speeding. They're at least a block
away. But you can't please everybody on this job. I figured that out
fast."

Saffold says his presence at a street scene where white officers
have stopped a black driver often seems to help "mellow" the
situation. "Even though I'm going to do the same job as the white
officers, that's their perception -- that I'll be more fair to them."

Unfortunately, he says, preconceived notions of racial bias can help
spin routine stops into confrontations between minority motorists
and officers.

"If you're a black motorist and you're dealing with a white cop, you
might be frustrated that he has pulled you over and you act out, so
now he (the cop) takes it a step forward. ... You don't have to kiss
butt. Mutual respect is what we're looking for."

In a sense, the debate over racial profiling is over: Chief Finney has
said flatly that racial profiling has occurred in St. Paul, and that it
must stop. Officers, however, believe that many good cops have
been tarnished by a few. (Only six cops -- 1 percent of the 600 St.
Paul officers -- are said to have arrest stats that are clearly out of
whack on the color scale.) And now all cops are facing more
criticism and occasional resistance. Sometimes, it's downright weird
out there.

A STOP, A WARNING

A

few minutes before Linssen arrests Dwight on Payne Avenue, he
stops a car on Maryland Avenue that is driving without headlights
on. It's 1:20 a.m., and we haven't seen the driver's face, but when
we walk up to the car, a woman in the passenger seat is cursing and
complaining about being stopped for "driving while black."

Linssen quickly learns that the driver, a 37-year-old
African-American named David, is not supposed to be driving at all
after 11 p.m. -- he has a restricted license that permits him only to
drive to and from his job. He also has his license plates on his
dashboard, another violation. Mostly, however, David seems
worried that his companion's vociferous complaining will bring him
serious trouble.

"Damn it, Tonya, don't do this to me!" David screams at his
companion, flailing his arms and pounding the steering wheel, telling
her to be quiet as Linssen stands nearby.

"It's not fair," Tonya replies loudly. "We're black, the cop sees
we're black -- forget it." David shouts at her again, imploring her to
shut up. "Goddamn it, chill! If my lights were off, he's correct for
stopping me!"

Linssen tells David that he will lose his driver's license if he gives
him
a ticket. So he tells him he will let him go, warning him to go right
home, to put his license plates on the car, and to stop driving after
11 p.m. He calls the police dispatcher and makes a report:
"Three-Nine-Eight: Black ... Male ... No ... Advised."

It's a five-second summary made by every police officer after every
traffic stop these days: the cop's patrol number, followed by the
race of the driver, the driver's gender, and a yes or a no for whether
the driver and the car were searched -- plus a word indicating
whether the driver was let go with a talking-to ("advised'') or
arrested ("report" -- meaning one will be filed). The department
tracks the numbers for each officer. If a problem shows up, the
officer will get a talking-to.

"I don't have a clue what my numbers look like," says the
30-year-old Linssen, who was a cop in Oakdale before joining the
St. Paul force two years ago. "I do my job the same way I've
(always) done it. They said if it was a problem, they'd let us know."

I ask him about the agreement that Chief Finney and the department
have reached with minority leaders. The frustration many officers
express is evident in his voice.

"I don't see how us handing out business cards is going to solve this
thing or change anyone's perception," he says. "The NAACP is
teaching people how to complain about the police, rather than
dealing with any racial profiling. They're trying to come up with
something to make everybody happy, but the education piece is
missing. To find the car with 50 rocks of crack in it, maybe it's the
10th car or the 20th car we stop. If you want to catch fish, you go
where the fish are.

"You're already trusting me with an immense responsibility," says
Linssen, whose father was police chief in Worthington, Minn. "I feel
I am an outstanding individual, and that I'm not going to do bad
things to people. I'm going to try to do good things.

"That's why I'm in this job in the first place."

Columnist Nick Coleman can be reached at
ncoleman@pioneer press.com or (651) 228-5472.
--
- Outlaw Frog Raper -
Schenectady Copwatch
(518) 356-4238

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