Saturday, July 25, 2009

Perfection, Profiling, and Being Presidential

I was excited to be able to see the last three outs of Mark Buehrle's perfect game for the White Sox on Thursday. ESPN carried it live, and it included an amazing catch at the left center field wall by reserve outfielder Dewayne Wise. It was fun to see a team come together like that, and to see a crowd so into the experience. A lot of collective joy was evident.

Later, President Obama, who makes no effort to conceal his decided enthusiasm for the Chisox, called Mr. Buehrle to congratulate him on his accomplishment.

Perhaps that should be the extent of the President's comments regarding issues of local significance.

The controversy over the President's assessment of the Cambridge, Mass. Police Department's handling of the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. should not have happened. This is not because the incident is controversial, but because the President should not be paying public attention to it like he did.

His comments, and the response to them from the law enforcement community (as well as just about everyone else), shifted attention away from more critical issues, intruded on a local jurisdiction's ability to manage its own affairs, and forced the President to make a 'clarification' of his remarks today. This makes the President seem less than presidential.

Nothing will raise the hackles of local authorities like the uninvited and/or uninformed 'contribution' of a seemingly well-intentioned Federal government. Google "Grand Junction Mercury Storage" for more information on this.

To President Obama's credit, some of the related things he said at the press conference were more in line with what, as President, could be seen as more "presidential". For example:
"..there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately, and that's just a fact."
Those are some broad brush strokes that bring attention to an important issue. That's what a President should be saying, while assuring that his leadership can be asserted in addressing the problem in practical ways. I have no personal experience in this area, but I know someone who does.

When I asked my girlfriend Leslie if she felt she had ever been the subject of racial profiling by police, her response was a somewhat annoyed "Duh". She went on to describe the various places and circumstances in which she felt she had been paid extra attention by law enforcement solely on the basis of her skin color. She had particular disdain for the authorities in Texas. She added, "If I drive down the wrong street in an expensive car, it's assumed that I stole it, and I'm considered a menace to society".

KJCT tried to capitalize on the attention paid to the controversy, by making inquiries of the GJPD about racial profiling complaints. I believe that their approach, while well-intentioned, was way too narrow in scope. They appeared to contact only one law enforcement agency, and made no apparent attempt to contact a representative of the minority community for a more balanced perspective.

The problem of racial profiling notwithstanding, perhaps a larger issue locally is the targeting of individuals based on their perceived socioeconomic or demographic status. These manifest themselves in focused police attention upon those who appear to be transients and/or homeless persons, or persons under 21, among others. Such allegations have been leveled, but not quantified empirically...yet. Most of the allegations are anecdotal, and some in the community have also alleged that the GJPD complaint process is overly complicated and intimidating.
Put that on the assignment board, KJCT.

Admittedly, a lot of this type of 'profiling' is being done in the reactive mode, with law enforcement responding to complaints from citizens about "suspicious subjects" or "welfare checks", which in some cases may be a concern that someone in the neighborhood just doesn't look like they belong.

I personally took a call several years ago from someone in the Redlands, where the caller, when asked what was suspicious about the person they was calling about, stated very matter-of-factly, "he's black". This may be an extreme example, but if the practical application of the law is a reflection of community standards, then the GJPD's reported vigilance in officer training about profiling is an important thing. As Leslie said to me last night, "we all profile".

We still have a lot of work to do as a society. Old habits, attitudes, and approaches learned from childhood are sometimes difficult to overcome. That includes me.

I'll conclude with my own anecdote. My mother, during a recent visit, drove my son in his car to a bike shop downtown. He wasn't going to be long, so she looked around for a parking space and couldn't find one. She decided to park in a part of the street posted as No Parking, behind a luxury car that was unattended.

After a few minutes a patrol car pulled up; an officer got out and approached my son's car, and asked my mother how long she had been parked there. My mother turned and replied, "The question should be, how long has that car been parked there?", pointing to the BMW in front of her. The officer, perhaps a little taken aback by a seventy-something with attitude, in a car adorned with bumper stickers and a ski rack, excused himself and left.

Let's resolve to work harder to appreciate and assess others for the human beings that they are, not by the labels and stereotypes that some in our society would seek to divide us with. It's one way to get us closer to truly being e pluribus unum; out of many, one.

This weekend I'm going to get together with my neighbors. Our President is trying to get a certain professor and a cop to join him for a beer at the White House. Hey, it's a start.

Leslie, I miss you.

Have a good weekend.

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