In the Black community “the talk” doesn’t mean a conversation about the birds and bees. It means parents telling their sons how to survive encounters with the police and make it home alive.
Racial profiling is an ugly fact of life in America for Black people, and if you drive a car, there’s a good possibility you’re going to get pulled over by law enforcement.
According to U.S. Justice Department statistics, Black drivers are 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than Whites. For years, Black parents have tried to prepare their children for this by instructing them on how to act including to always have their driver liscense and registration papers on them, be extremely polite when dealing with police and avoiding sudden moves.
But with almost everyone having a camera phone in their pocket, a logical question might be: have those rules changed in today’s environment?
Los Angeles-based author and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson said he grew up in a tight-knit Black neighborhood in Chicago, so he never got the talk. But has had to talk to his sons in the Los Angeles area about racial profiling.
“The two things I drilled into my sons were always comport yourself with pride and dignity, know your rights, but do nothing to provoke or inflame authority,” Hutchinson said. “There have been problems with police encounters with one of my sons in years past. He’s now in his 30s, but the worry is still there.”
Hutchinson believes that it is important that Black parents talk to their children about racial profiling, because it’s still a major problem.
“Most Black parents know the perils of any encounter or confrontation with a police officer, and they continually warn their sons, about the dangers,” he said. “However, they also realize that no matter how law abiding the behavior there is still the risk of an ‘incident’ happening.”
Some Black parents have tried to prevent their sons from being constantly pulled over by buying them non-descript cars, but that doesn’t seem to solve the problem. Hutchinson said the problem is with the police, not the drivers.
“The problem with stops is not the car but the occupants—young, Black, and male are susceptible to disproportionate stops no matter what kind of car they drive, or don’t drive,” he said.
Keturah Baker, a family therapist based in Los Angeles, said she never had the talk with her parents, because acts of police violence against women were rare, when she was growing up. However, she said the current climate has changed a lot of things.
“The rules have definitely changed since President Barack Obama took office,” she said. “It appears that more non-African American police have no regard for Black life. I do believe that it is now necessary for Black parents to educate their children on the misconception that law enforcement is here to protect and serve us.”
Baker has a daughter, but she still worries about her brothers when they are driving.
“My brothers have experienced many situations where the reason they were pulled over was because, ‘they fit the description’ and based on that ‘subjective’ approach alone, they are ‘just’ pulling my brothers over, handcuffing them, placing them in patrol vehicles, and searching their vehicles. It is situations like these that cause the long-standing distrust that minorities have had with law enforcement for hundreds of years,” said Baker.
Delores D. Jones-Brown, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and director of the Center on Race, Crime and Justice, says Black people who are unjustly pulled over by the police or assaulted should be aware that they have certain rights.
“Any person who is arrested or assaulted by the police should know that he has a right to know the identity of the police officer and to make a complaint, if he feels that he has been treated in an illegal manner during the encounter,” said Jones-Brown. “Not only does he have a right to complain to the police agency, he also has a right to pursue criminal or civil action against the officer(s) to determine the legality of police behavior. Although, as we have seen recently, local prosecutors and juries are reluctant to indict or convict officers for behavior they engage in while on duty, when the volume of complaints reach a certain level, they indicate a ‘pattern or practice’ of questionable police conduct that can then trigger a federal investigation.”
Technology, especially cell phones, has become a new weapon in the fight against abusive police officers. But even this is controversial. Although it is legal to tape police officers, some officers have reacted by arresting the people shooting video or smashing the phones. However, there are apps available that automatically upload cell phone video to online servers.
Jones-Brown advises people to be very careful, when taping police officers because police have killed Black men after mistaking cell phones for guns.
“In fatal encounters, such as the death of Jonny Gammage in a Pittsburgh suburb in 1995, police claim to have mistaken a cell phone for a gun,” said Jones-Brown. “Consequently, instructing a young person to tape a police encounter may actually be harmful or even fatal.”
Jones-Brown offers this advice to Black people who are stopped by the police:
Drivers stopped have the right to ask for the officer’s badge and name.
Police officers are not used to having their authority challenged, so some of them become hostile, when people question their decisions.
Sometimes, when officers are faced with people who question their actions, they can respond by arresting the person on a host of “ambiguous charges” such as engaging in disorderly conduct, resisting arrest or obstruction of the administration of justice.
The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the right to record police officers, when they are in a public place, so even if an officer threatens a person with arrest, taping is still legal, according to Jones-Brown.
New York and some other states are now requiring police officers to follow a standard procedure, when they pull over suspects. The Right to Know Act requires police to issue a ticket detailing the time, date, location and the reason for the stop and also give the driver a business card with a number in case they want to make a complaint.
Jones-Brown said a new technology, body cameras, could improve police behavior. The only problem is getting police officers to comply. A recent news report found several Chicago police officers had disabled their cameras or refused to turn them on.
“Some early studies have shown that body cams do reduce the number of questionable encounters with law-abiding civilians,” said Hutchinson. “The problem though is two-fold—making sure the cameras are turned on, and in a questionable use-of-force encounter, police officials have full custodianship of the tapes and can refuse to make full public disclosure.”