Rossano and Gregory Gerald were victims of discriminatory racial profiling by police. There is nothing new about this problem. Police abuse against people of color is a legacy of African American enslavement, repression, and legal inequality. Indeed, during hearings of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders ("The Kerner Commission") in the fall of 1967 where more than 130 witnesses testified about the events leading up to the urban riots that had taken place in 150 cities the previous summer, one of the complaints that came up repeatedly was "the stopping of Negroes on foot or in cars without obvious basis."
President Ronald Reagan established the Task Force on Crime in South Florida under Vice President George Bush's direction. The primary mission of the Task Force was to intensify air and sea operations against drug smuggling in the South Florida area, but it was not long before the Florida Highway Patrol entered the fray. In 1985, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles issued guidelines for the police on "The Common Characteristics of Drug Couriers." The guidelines cautioned troopers to be suspicious of rental cars, "scrupulous obedience to traffic laws," and drivers wearing "lots of gold," or who do not "fit the vehicle," and "ethnic groups associated with the drug trade." Traffic stops were initiated by the state troopers using this overtly race-based profile.
The emergence of crack in the spring of 1986 and a flood of lurid and often exaggerated press accounts of inner-city crack use ushered in a period of intense public concern about illegal drugs, and helped reinforce the impression that drug use was primarily a minority problem. Enforcement of the nation's drug laws at the street level focused more and more on poor communities of color. In the mid- to late-1980s, many cities initiated major law enforcement programs to deal with street-level drug dealing. "Operation Pressure Point" in New York was an attempt to rid the predominantly Hispanic Lower East Side of the drug trade. Operation Invincible in Memphis, Operation Clean Sweep in Chicago, Operation Hammer in Los Angeles, and the Red Dog Squad in Atlanta all targeted poor, minority, urban neighborhoods where drug dealing tended to be open and easy to detect.
In the 1980s, with the emergence of the crack market, skin color alone became a major profile component, and, to an increasing extent, black travelers in the nation's airports and found themselves the subjects of frequent interrogations and suspicionless searches by the DEA and the U.S. Customs Service. These law enforcement practices soon spread to train stations and bus terminals, as well.
The consequences of these law enforcement practices and sentencing policies are painfully evident today in the demographics of our prison population. According to an April 1999 report prepared for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights by The Sentencing Project, there are now an estimated 400,000 inmates in the U.S. either awaiting trial or serving time for a drug offense, out of a total inmate population of 1.7 million. "The combined impact of increased drug arrests along with harsher sentencing policies has led to a vast expansion of drug offenders in the nation's prisons and jails," the report explains. "As these policies have been implemented, they have increasingly affected African American and Hispanic communities. The African American proportion of drug arrests has risen from 25 percent in 1980 to 37 percent in 1995. Hispanic and African American inmates are more likely than non-Hispanic whites to be incarcerated for a drug offense."
Since Whren, the Court has extended police power over cars and drivers even further. In Ohio v. Robinette, the Court rejected the argument that officers seeking consent to search a car must tell the driver he is free to refuse permission and leave. Maryland v. Wilson (1997) gave police the power to order passengers out of stopped cars, whether or not there is any basis to suspect they are dangerous. And in Wyoming v. Houghton, decided on April 5, 1999, the Court ruled that after the lawful arrest of the driver, the police can search the closed purse of a passenger even though she had nothing to do with the alleged traffic infraction and had done nothing to suggest involvement in criminal activity.
In 1996, two officers in police cruisers followed George Washington and Darryl Hicks as they drove into the parking garage of the hotel where they were staying in Santa Monica. The men were ordered out of the car at gun point, handcuffed and placed in separate police cars while the officers searched their car and checked their identification. The police justified this detention because the men allegedly resembled a description of two suspects being sought for 19 armed robberies and because one of the men seemed to be "nervous." The men filed suit against the officers and the court found that neither man fit the descriptions of the robbers and that the robberies had not even occurred in the City of Santa Monica. (Source: The Los Angeles Times)
In Indiana, Sgt. David Smith, an African American police officer, was pulled over while driving an unmarked car in the City of Carmel in 1997. Sgt. Smith was in full uniform at the time, but he was not wearing a hat which would have identified him as a police officer. According to a complaint filed with the ACLU, the trooper who stopped Smith appeared to be "shocked and surprised" when Sgt. Smith got out of the car. The trooper explained that he had stopped Smith because he had three antennas on the rear of his car and quickly left the scene. (Source: The Indianapolis Star)
In Maryland, in 1997, Charles and Etta Carter, an elderly African American couple from Pennsylvania, were stopped by Maryland State Police on their 40th wedding anniversary. The troopers searched their car and brought in drug-sniffing dogs. During the course of the search, their daughter's wedding dress was tossed onto one of the police cars and, as trucks passed on I-95, it was blown to the ground. Mrs. Carter was not allowed to use the restroom during the search because police officers feared that she would flee. Their belongings were strewn along the highway, trampled and urinated on by the dogs. No drugs were found and no ticket was issued. The Carters eventually reached a settlement with the Maryland State Police. (Source: The Daily Record)
In Pennsylvania, Jonny Gammage was pulled over while driving his cousin's Jaguar at 2 A.M. in 1996. As Gammage pulled over, a total of five Brentwood police cars arrived on the scene. One of the officers said that Gammage ran three red lights before stopping after the officer flashed his lights at him. The officer ordered Gammage out of the car and saw him grab something that was reportedly a weapon, but in reality was just a cellular phone. The officer knocked the phone out of Gammage's hand and a scuffle followed. The other officers beat Gammage with a flashlight, a collapsible baton and a blackjack as one put his foot on Gammage's neck. Jonny Gammage died, handcuffed, ankles bound, facedown on the pavement shortly after the incident began. He was unarmed. (Source: People Magazine)
In the early 1990's, the U.S. Justice Department began an investigation into the systematic abuse perpetrated by a number of white police officers in the 39th Police District of Philadelphia based on evidence that these officers were planting drugs on African Americans, assaulting them during arrest, and wrongfully obtaining their prosecution and conviction. Ultimately, six officers were tried, convicted and incarcerated for their criminal activities.
Race-based traffic stops turn one of the most ordinary and quintessentially American activities into an experience fraught with danger and risk for people of color. Because traffic stops can happen anywhere and anytime, millions of African Americans and Latinos alter their driving habits in ways that would never occur to most white Americans. Some completely avoid places like all-white suburbs, where they fear police harassment for looking "out of place." Some intentionally drive only bland cars or change the way they dress. Others who drive long distances even factor in extra time for the traffic stops that seem inevitable.
In North Carolina, a bill requiring data collection on all traffic stops was passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses of the state legislature and signed into law by the governor on April 21, 1999. This became the first law anywhere in the nation to require the kind of effort that will yield a full, detailed statistical portrait of the use of traffic stops.
Sebastian Blanco has been writing about electric vehicles, hybrids, and hydrogen cars since 2006. His articles and car reviews have appeared in the New York Times, Automotive News, Reuters, SAE, Autoblog, InsideEVs, Trucks.com, Car Talk, and other outlets. His first green-car media event was the launch of the Tesla Roadster, and since then he has been tracking the shift away from gasoline-powered vehicles and discovering the new technology's importance not just for the auto industry, but for the world as a whole. Throw in the recent shift to autonomous vehicles, and there are more interesting changes happening now than most people can wrap their heads around. You can find him on Twitter or, on good days, behind the wheel of a new EV.
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