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Driving While Black — Or Brown


Lieutenant Rosalinda Vasquez of the San Antonio Police Department explains rights and procedures for filing a complaint with the SAPD's internal affairs division. Vasquez spoke during a recent town hall meeting on racial profiling in San Antonio. The meeting was sponsored by the Texas Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, and the League United of Latin American Citizens. These groups have started "The Campaign to End Racial Profiling"

(Photo by Mark Greenberg)
Town hall meeting reveals conflicting reports on racial profiling

Elmer Williams likes to drive big, pretty cars. He always has, and always will - sometimes a little too fast.

A few years ago Williams, a civil service employee with the U.S. Army, was driving up I-95 on his way to Baltimore when a state trooper signaled for him to pull over.

Williams suspected the officer's only probable cause for requesting a search of his care was DWB - driving while black.

"The cop said, 'Can I search your car?' and I said 'No.'"

The officer warned Williams that his search of the car could be done the hard way, or the easy way. "I said 'We're going the hard way today.'"

Forty-five minutes later, another officer arrived on the scene with a search warrant. Williams said he needed to read it, and pretended he could only read at a fourth-grade level, very slowly. Then, as his car was being searched, he opened his trunk and removed his luggage, which he set down beside the road, and pointed out that the luggage was no longer in the car, and no longer subject to the search warrant.

Once again, the officer threatened to obtain another search warrant, but Williams was determined to make the trooper aware that his suspect believed he was the target of racial profiling. "The most dangerous man in the world is a black man who can read and write," Williams said.

That was the first time Williams felt he was the subject of racial profiling.

The second incident occurred just outside the Fort Sam Houston gate in San Antonio. Williams was stopped for speeding, but said he had set the proper speed limit on his cruise control, which was turned on. He got a ticket anyway, but since he is retired he can go down to municipal court "every day." He pleaded not guilty, and prepared a PowerPoint document to present his case to a jury. When the prosecutor saw Williams' laptop set up in the courtroom, he capitulated and requested that the case be dismissed.

Williams told his story about the suspected racial profiling incidents during a recent town meeting on racial profiling, presented by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

The community meeting, conducted at La Trinidad Methodist Church on the West Side, included speakers from the these organizations who talked about the history of racial profiling, laws and issues, and the TCJC's statewide racial profiling study. The latter part of the conference was open for the audience to talk about issues, or relate incidents such as the ones Williams experienced.

The meeting was organized in response to the San Antonio Police Department's recent racial profiling study, which claimed that there is no problem in the city. It also was one of about 20 meetings conducted throughout the state, leading into the Southwest Regional Conference: Breaking the Chains, Communities of Color and the War on Drugs, slated for April 1 - 3 at Texas Southern University in Houston.

"When the racial profiling statute (a law that forbids racial profiling by law enforcement agents in Texas) passed, nobody expected racial profiling to suddenly end," explained Will Harrell, executive director of the ACLU of Texas. "It takes a process, not just in San Antonio but around the state. We will never address the problem when (law enforcement) is in a perpetual state of denial."

Harrell said the Houston conference is designed to bring together community activists from around the state to discuss the war on drugs and how it is affecting communities of color, and what can be done to reverse the trend.

A study was conducted in 2002 to identify whether racial profiling exists among the ranks of the San Antonio Police Department. The study showed only three complaints were made, and none revealed any evidence of profiling.

Instead of identifying incidents of profiling, the report claims that 95 percent of average motorists in the city are in "violation of traffic laws, and are subject to be stopped by police officers."

Furthermore, the report claims that all of the high ratio traffic stops of blacks and Latinos were in high crime areas, and surmised that there is "virtually no evidence for targeting blacks and Hispanics." In answer to a finding that African Americans had a high incidence of consensus searches during traffic stops, it is reasoned that many blacks were stopped on the East Side, where there is a high number of officers per capita, and there is a higher number of blacks on probation or parole.

The study was presented to the City Council after 41 traffic locations were studied over a period of seven weeks. It found there is a "lack of trust in the minority communities," which is exacerbated by racial profiling claims.

A statewide report by the Texas Criminal Justice Reform Coalition reveals that 19.7 percent of blacks who were stopped by SAPD were also searched, and 17.3 percent of Latinos who were stopped were searched. Blacks are two times more likely than Anglos to be stopped by SAPD, and Latinos are 1.7 times more likely to be stopped. Blacks are 2.5 times more likely to be searched after a traffic stop; Latinos are twice as likely to be searched.

Additionally, when consent searches are isolated, blacks are more than three times as likely as Anglos to be subjected to a consent search; Latinos are 1.3 times as likely to be subjected to a consent search.

SAPD Lieutenant Rosalinda Vasquez, a supervisor at the Prue Road Substation on the Northwest Side, attended the town hall meeting, and said she does not believe that racial profiling occurs among the ranks of the SAPD.

She said the perceptions of the attendees of the conference were an eye-opener. "I had not been aware that those perceptions were out there. It helps us to see that no matter what action we take as officers, there's always going to be a perception of that occurring. I am not sure we can convince the public that we don't have officers that do racial profiling."

Vasquez said that if a person believes he or she has been racially profiled, they should follow through with a complaint to the SAPD's internal affairs department. If a sergeant or other officer appears intimidating, the complainant should ask for a supervisor.

"If you felt intimidated, let me apologize for that," Vasquez told other speakers at the town hall meeting. "Do not let anyone intimidate you. Somebody will listen to you." •

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