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.
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.
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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?"
Bradford contends, however, this isn't a valid premise. Last month he pulled records from the municipal court that show white males continue to lead the pack when it comes to traffic tickets in Houston, he says. The difference, Bradford says, is that most minorities come down to court to settle a ticket, "while non-minorities pay it or handle it via a lawyer."
Well, that's not what people are thinking about when they are sitting in what appears to be a segregated court system. And that's not what they're thinking when they are pulled over. As anyone knows, a traffic stop in and of itself, whether the officer is polite or not, is unpleasant, embarrassing and does not lead to happy thoughts or bonding with your pursuer.
It's a fine line between racism and clues. If a rapist has hit a predominantly white area for the last five weeks and he has been described as a black male in his early twenties and police see someone matching that description at 1 a.m., should they stop the person and ask what's going on? Is that racist? Is that a lack of common sense if they don't? If they see a trio of white kids late at night in an all-black, depressed area of town where crack houses are common, should they assume the white kids are there for tutoring sessions or to visit a chum?
It's not a simple subject. It's an uncomfortable one that brings conflict between the races right out there where it gets nasty.
So far, the city of Houston's performance in this area -- despite the fact that the mayor and police chief are African-American and there are seven minority City Council members -- has been less than awe-inspiring. Chief Bradford says Mayor Lee Brown asked him months ago to look into racial profiling and it took him a long time to collect data from police chiefs throughout the country and then from local chiefs. It was coincidence, he says, that their joint press conference announcing an investigation into racial profiling took place when the National Urban League came to town.
And as Bradford himself readily concedes, "Houston is not without a history." Joe Campos Torres drowned after police officers beat him up and threw him into Buffalo Bayou in 1977 to cover up their actions. There's also the infamous 1989 case of Ida Lee Delaney, the black 50-year-old custodian who was chased by drunken, off-duty HPD officers in an unmarked car and ultimately shot to death on the freeway after an exchange of gunfire. About a week later, Byron Gillum, a black man, was killed by police after another traffic stop.
At the news conference, Brown said racial profiling "has led to strained and hostile relationships between law enforcement and the people they serve." Well, yeah, that would follow.
Dr. Bruce Matson is a Houston dentist who has been in practice ten years. In December he bought a Mercedes 320S. All of a sudden he has been trailed by police, getting stopped, getting tickets.
"A black man can't drive a nice car," Matson has concluded. "I've been driving 20-plus years in Houston. I never had a ticket in my life."
Both tickets he has received have been for speeding. One happened on a Sunday afternoon as Matson was driving his family back from a trip to the caverns near San Antonio. "I was going through Seguin at 50 to 52 miles an hour." He had just passed a sign that said the limit was 55 and could see another sign ahead moving it up to 60. He passed by a police car whose driver looked at him, turned his car around, followed and pulled him over. "He told me I was going 52 in a 35 zone in the city." The town was three to four miles back, Matson says. He asked how the cop could say that when the officer, facing the other way, had just met Matson here. Matson was told he was wrong, as the officer's partner came out of the squad car, his hand on his gun. Matson's two children and wife were with him.
Matson has gone back to driving his Ford Explorer. His wife drives the Mercedes most of the time. She hasn't been stopped.
Ken Williams thinks racial profiling continues in Houston because the mayor and the police chief haven't made stopping it a priority. Perhaps Lee Brown doesn't want to anger the police, he says.
"He must have known it was going on. I guess it's hard to control with such a big police force. I have to believe it's a real policy of the city because it doesn't happen occasionally."
Williams is thinking about filing a suit against the city, if he and his attorney Robert Rosenberg can interest the ACLU. Cases like this are difficult to win, Rosenberg says, because what they would be arguing is mainly anecdotal rather than the result of statistical analysis -- a doable but massive undertaking.
Jay Jacobson, executive director of the Texas branch of the ACLU, agrees. The ACLU has filed suit about racial profiling in Maryland and other places. "Where we're weak in Texas is that we don't have the numbers," Jacobson says. "That's what's exciting about Houston. They're actually going to be gathering numbers."
Not only will the general data be helpful in determining whether racial profiling is going on to any great extent in Houston, Jacobson says, but "it may also remove some of the more onerous stops simply by being reported."
The important distinction to be made in this, Jacobson believes, is the kind of stop being made. "People get stopped all the time for speeding, and most people understand this." But when someone is stopped only to be asked what they are doing in this neighborhood and a search of the car ensues, then the encounter has gone over the line, he maintains.
It was a good day. Williams had just gotten his new Mercedes and called a professor friend of his to tell him about it. The friend was excited and asked Williams to come over to his home to show him the car.
"He wanted a ride, so I took him on a test drive," Williams says. Suddenly he heard three sirens.
Williams looked back and saw not only a squad car with its lights on following him, but officers on horseback tracking him. (Clearly this TSU professor is good at attracting crowds.) Williams pulled over; an officer peered into his car and when he saw Williams's companion was white, said, "Oh, you can go," Williams remembers. Suddenly it was all right for this black man to be driving through Meyerland.
"It was almost like living in South Africa with the pass laws," Williams says.
Now there's a role model for you.
E-mail Margaret Downing at email@example.com
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