Denver’s top Black public safety officials are on the wrong side of history.
When it comes to racial profiling, city safety head Stephanie O’Malley and Police Chief Robert White recently came out against a recommendation by city Auditor Tim O’Brien — a white man — to collect demographic data about the problem. Their rationale: Gathering information on race and ethnicity would ande too much of an administrative burden for officers.
Never mind the burdens on the Black and Brown Denverites who are repeatedly stopped and searched for “looking suspicious.” O’Malley and White apparently are more concerned with ensuring that the city’s mostly white male police officers aren’t inconvenienced with the details of race, unless of course it helps them effectuate arrests.
And never mind that officers already are required to record lots of other administrative details as part of their routine duties. City officials are perfectly comfortable requiring data collection if the data increases the likelihood that the people officers stop will be convicted of something down the line. They seem to think data that paints a picture of a suspect’s criminality is worthwhile, yet data that could shine light on a police officer’s racial bias is a waste of time.
Under O’Malley and White’s reasoning, collecting demographic information on police contacts amounts to an administrative task that’s not connected to the community’s safety and well-being. That raises the question: What do “safety” and “well-being” mean in their book — and whose safety and well-being do they care about?
Last Spring, a package of police reform bills was put forth by state Reps. Angela Williams and Joseph Salazar and state Sen. Jessie Ulibarri in response to community outcry for officer accountability. One of those measures sought to increase data collection and evaluate methods of traffic and pedestrian stops and searches to determine the extent to which profiling is occurring in Colorado. It was soundly defeated after the powerful law enforcement lobby came out against it, essentially arguing that racial profiling doesn’t exist, and that racial tensions were mainly just an inner-city problem.
Therein lies the madness of racial profiling – a practice that most Black or Brown families who interact with police will tell you is all too real, but that law enforcement denies.
Take, for example, my son Tahjj who, despite having no criminal history, repeatedly was profiled, stopped and ticketed starting at age 15 when we moved into Denver’s Cole neighborhood. Why? Because he’s African American. Once Tahjj was old enough start driving, the police stops were relentless. Officers came up with contrived, pretextual reasons, including failure to come to a full stop, failure to signal, obstructed view or defective vehicle – infractions that rarely seem to be levied at white drivers. At one point, Tahjj was targeted for so many racial-profiling motivated tickets that his license was temporarily suspended.
When Tahjj brought this pattern to the court’s attention during one of our many attempts to fight his cases, the judge said he didn’t believe police officers would engage in racial profiling. Even when there were witnesses stating that Tahjj broke no laws, a white officer’s word always trumped the word of our Black kid. As a matter of course, Denver Police dismissed all of the many racial profiling complaints we filed against officers. Nobody in the system believed this pattern of stops related to Tahjj’s race. The message from the city was that it was all in our heads.
This pattern not only of being racially profiled, but then disbelieved about being profiled has a cumulative traumatic effect on youth of color and their families. The fear of law enforcement weighs heavily on our communities. My own anxiety about Tahjj being shot or killed by a cop wasn’t unfounded. The shootings of unarmed Black males – and the exoneration of the officers involved — are an all too common occurrence.
A recent study by the American Psychological Association shows Black boys as young as 10 are viewed by white police officers as older and bigger than they actually are. They’re often perceived as guilty and, therefore, are more likely to face police violence. These are the dangerous consequences of implicit bias and unchecked police power. What makes those consequences even more dangerous is the complete lack of data about them. I have no data other than my family’s story on Tahjj’s repeated stops, which never got officially connected to thousands of other families’ stories across Denver and Colorado. Without numbers to corroborate the extent of the problem, there’s no chance to put in place comprehensive solutions to racial profiling.
After law enforcement killed last year’s racial profiling bill, another measure is making its way through the legislature this session. The bill gives an applicant for a driver’s license or state identification card “the opportunity” to voluntarily self-identify his or her race or ethnicity with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). So, rather than making police officers responsible for accurately and consistently recording demographic information on each stop, the responsibility would fall to the people they’re profiling – and only if those people had the foresight to voluntarily sign up at the DMV prior to being profiled. That’s hardly a meaningful remedy for racial profiling. It’s a Band-Aid designed, once again, to let police off the hook for targeting people of color by pretending to collect data that, in its randomness, is inherently inaccurate.
According to the Sentencing Project — a national leading policy organization addressing unjust racial disparities and advocating for alternatives to incarceration — one in six Latino males and one in three Black males will be incarcerated at some point in their lifetimes. Where do law enforcement officials think this cycle of incarceration starts? With the police decision to make contact. Yes, racial profiling is prohibited as an official police tactic; but, in practice, it’s what happens whenever people get stopped, frisked, harassed, arrested and incarcerated disproportionately in Denver because of the color of their skin. We can’t all be making this pattern up.
Black city officials like O’Malley and White — as well as their boss, Mayor Michael Hancock — were supposed to make things better for Denver’s communities of color. They should be the last people who see the quantification of our collective experiences of racial profiling as merely an “administrative inconvenience” to the city’s predominately white male police officers. They’ve fallen down in their moral obligation to do everything in their power to correct the injustices of racial inequity, starting with mandating the collection of real, hard data. Research can make the difference between officials burying their heads in the sand and finding a real, lasting solution to ending the practice of being stopped for the unwritten infraction of Driving While Black or Brown.