The death of ex-Los Angeles Police Department officer and murder suspect Christopher Dorner provided closure for the families and friends of those who were murdered at his hands, not to mention the Southern Californian community at large.
His actions? Inexcusable. Yet the entire Dorner debacle has forced dialogue regarding the effect race has in law enforcement back into public discussion.
In his eleven pages-long manifesto, Dorner said the LAPD frequently covered up racist activity during his time as an officer, even treating him poorly. And though one might hope that we are past the age of blatant racism, the fact remains that, in our time, individuals of minority heritage have a much higher rate of negative interaction with law enforcement agencies than their white counterparts.
In 2011, Nicholas K. Peart published an opinion piece in The New York Times entitled “Why is the N.Y.P.D. After Me?” documenting his interactions with police in New York City as a young black male. In the piece, Peart explains how he has been stopped numerous times without due cause and always with vigor that, to an onlooker, would look as if the police had an ironclad reason to stop him.
In reality, the only reason the NYPD had to detain Peart in these situations seemed to do with his profile as a young black male. Peart then said the experience “incorporated into my daily life the sense that I might find myself up against a wall or on the ground with an officer’s gun at my head. For a black man in his 20s like me, it’s just a fact of life in New York.”
It’s a fact of life in New York, but also all across the United States. Peart’s frisk was apparently a judgment based purely upon the color of his skin alone. Peart points out that 84 percent of the stop-and-frisk incidents in NYC in 2010 were conducted on people of color. In more than half of these occurrences, the reason for the stop is ambiguously attributed to “furtive movements,” or actions suggestive of guilty nervousness.
Considering that nothing comes of the vast majority of these stops, the identification of “furtive movements” seems unfounded. Therefore, Peart’s stop-and-frisk based upon skin color and gender alone is fallacious and indicates criminal profiling based upon race alone.
When looking at the description of Peart — a young man who dresses well, acts civilly and is getting a college education — one must consider the large number of people who fit that profile. For what it’s worth, I fit the description. In fact, near as I can tell, the only distinct difference between Peart and myself is the color of our skin. But where Peart has been stopped many times by the police without due cause, I have only been stopped once, and that was for going 80 miles per hour in a 65 zone.
It wouldn’t be too big of a stretch, then, to say that racial profiling by law enforcement is alive and rampant in America. It’s a deplorable aspect of many people’s day-to-day lives, and reveals how many parts of society are no closer to true racial equality than it was 20 or 30 years ago.
A common counter argument to this is the statistical fact that blacks and Latinos are more likely to be affected by violent crime than whites. Though there might be legitimacy to the statistics, one must consider another fact: that blacks and Latinos often live in a much lower socioeconomic bracket than average whites do.
There are several studies, such as Morgan Kelly’s 2000 study “Inequality and Crime,” linking frequency of criminal activity with socioeconomic status. This study, in conjunction with comparing crime both reported and unreported (as Lee Ellis does in Handbook of Crime Correlates), reveals that participation in criminal activity does not vary dramatically across race, but is highly tied to poverty.
Nevertheless, because of the wide practical assumption by some that white people don’t commit as many crimes as minorities, crimes by whites tend to be underplayed and regarded as abnormal both by law enforcement and the media. In contrast, as shown by Peart’s story, having skin of color seems like an automatic qualifier for at least some form of criminal activity.
Dorner knew this and allegedly experienced it firsthand in the LAPD, not only as described above, but also within the department itself. Although mental illness is most likely the leading cause behind Dorner’s actions, his manifesto is filled with stories of discrimination based upon race. It is entirely likely that the discrimination he received because he was black was, at the very least, a factor.
Too often people are afraid of discussing fundamental issues surrounding race in modern America, especially in regard to the forces here for our protection — the police.
But if there’s anything to take away from the Dorner case, it’s that this conversation must continue, lest we meet further consequences.
Matthew Tinoco is a freshman majoring in international relations. His column “Mixing Colors” runs Mondays.