Race Cars

If you're black or brown, driving a nice car will get you noticed by police in Houston

One moment Ken Williams was asking the Houston traffic cop if he knew what racial profiling was. The next moment "there were five police officers around me."

Nope, this wasn't the drug bust of the century or the apprehension of a serial killer. This was making a right turn without coming to a complete stop at the light, according to police.

According to Williams, who says he did come to a complete stop, this was another episode in what has become his life since his return to Houston in May. Just a few days before this, he'd gotten a ticket for failure to make a right turn from the correct lane as he made his way around the construction on Louisiana Street.

Ken Williams's sports cars have brought him a close relationship with Houston police.
Ken Williams's sports cars have brought him a close relationship with Houston police.

Williams is a black man who owns two spiffy two-seater sports cars, a Honda Civic Del Sol and a Mercedes SLK. He is a black man living in the museum district, a predominantly white area of town. He is stopped by police at least once a month for things such as "failure to signal," "turning from the wrong lane" and "failure to come to a complete stop." Sometimes he gets a ticket; sometimes he doesn't. Williams doesn't look like a bum, although he may be dressed casually and often wears a baseball cap. Most of the stops, he thinks, are done to give the officers a chance to run a warrant check on him, and when they find nothing outstanding, they let him go. The stops usually are at night. None of the officers who've pulled him over have been black.

Williams is also a 38-year-old practicing attorney and law professor at Texas Southern University. He graduated from the University of Virginia law school and was in private practice in New Orleans before moving to Houston in 1989. He has been a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii and just got back from a stint as visiting professor at Michigan State University. He defends death penalty cases. He has driven across the country in his travels competently, but when he gets to Houston apparently he just acts up something terrible.

"I just spent the past year in Michigan as a visiting professor, and I never got stopped there. So the police department might argue, 'Well, he's just a bad driver.' Well, how could I go to Michigan and never get stopped there and get stopped all the time here?" Williams asks, it would seem, reasonably enough.

Racial profiling, the stopping and searching of minorities simply because of their race, isn't happening just in Houston. It's a stupid, sad shortcut that has gone on for years. Know a robber has been working an area and that he's black? Okay, stop all the black men who come by. Suddenly a lot more people are calling this approach an unjustifiable crime prevention tool, i.e. "wrong." In response, officers in Houston and elsewhere have alternately threatened a) not to stop anyone (crime surge! thousands of people's lives and property threatened!); or b) to deal out tickets to everyone of color they stop so no one can say there wasn't justifiable cause (see, you're making us be oppressive!).

Meanwhile, critics, who include politicians hopeful of re-election, civil rights activists, American Civil Liberties Union types and most members of the minority community, say the practice is indefensible because it is racist, racist, racist -- and police better find another way to do their jobs. They usually drag in a mention of that old constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

Houston Police Chief Clarence Bradford agrees and says that is what he is calling his officers to do: follow the law. This is not a universally popular message. He has heard the threats and is particularly worried about the officers planning to cover themselves by always handing out a ticket.

"I want them to give people counsel, issue verbal warnings," Bradford says. "There doesn't always have to be official action taken on every stop."

In an August 11 press conference, Bradford explained the new policy, which calls for officers to collect information on the age, race and sex of every "self-initiated" stop they make, whether they arrest someone or not.

By documenting the contacts, Bradford hopes to be able to analyze the data to find out if the whole department is involved in racial profiling or "if it is a particular station, a particular shift or a particular officer."

He doesn't want basic police work to drop off. If officers have a reasonable suspicion, a probable cause, they have a duty to stop people. "There's a difference between criminal profiling and racial profiling," Bradford says. Criminal profiling occurs "when you have documented a certain type of person is committing a certain offense." This isn't initiated by race alone, and it includes surveillance, monitoring and watching for a probable cause. "You can't just go out and intrude on the free movement of people," Bradford says.

Anyone who has been in Houston traffic court knows most of the people waiting their turn to be heard are minorities, most of whom do feel intruded upon. As Ken Williams puts it: "I go to traffic court. The people there are black or brown, maybe a few Asians. I'm sitting there thinking, There's no white people driving badly?"

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