Go on, Oppress Me

Is racial profiling less serious when the police chief is black?

Consider this: The city's first black police chief is fighting off an investigation of his own department for racial profiling. The first black chairwoman of the Citizens/Police Review Board is doing everything she can to shut down a racial-profiling investigation by her own board. And the city's first black mayor and first black county commissioner are defending them.

Life is complicated, isn't it?

This all started with the issue of "failure to identify," the charge police bring when a person fails or refuses to provide identification or gives a false name or identification.

In carefully chosen words, City Councilman James Fantroy says he's not necessarily going along with the rest of elected black leadership on the racial-profiling issue.
Mark Graham
In carefully chosen words, City Councilman James Fantroy says he's not necessarily going along with the rest of elected black leadership on the racial-profiling issue.

The underlying principle here is that there is no law in Texas, or anywhere else in the United States, requiring American citizens to provide identity papers or otherwise identify themselves to the police, absent some other kind of mischief. You can never lie to the police about who you are, but you never have to say who you are unless you are in trouble for something else.

The basic allegation is that some police officers in Dallas illegally arrest people for failure to ID as an original offense--the main reason for getting arrested--and that they use it as a way to hassle poor people and minorities.

A set of numbers reluctantly released by Dallas police Chief Terrell Bolton a few weeks ago, numbers Bolton hoped would show that failure to ID charges are not used unfairly by police, actually showed the reverse: Black people in Dallas are arrested on this charge at a much higher rate than whites.

Two cases in particular have received intense scrutiny. Last April 30, Donato Garcia, a 44-year-old Latino construction worker, was arrested in front of his children on a charge of failure to ID. By arresting him and taking him to jail on this charge, police officers violated both the law and the clearly established official policy of the department. At some point after his arrest, in an apparent attempt to make the arrest legal, an additional charge of sleeping in public was added.

A subcommittee of the Citizens/Police Review Board has been trying to find out who added the sleeping charges and when.

The second case that has received attention is that of Leonard Mitchell, a 37-year-old African-American criminal-law student and long-term employee of the Dallas public schools who was arrested on a failure to ID charge last July. Mitchell's case seems to be a clear-cut instance of misusing the charge, coupled with some very rough physical treatment by police.

The chairwoman of the review board is Sharon Middlebrooks, an unsuccessful candidate two years ago for the District 7 city council seat in southern Dallas. Middlebrooks, who is black, was appointed to the review board by the mayor. At the December meeting of the board, Middlebrooks shut down an effort by some board members to ask questions about the Garcia and Mitchell cases. Middlebrooks also has opposed some members who want the board to demand numbers to show whether there is a broad pattern of racial profiling in Dallas.

Bolton, the city's first black police chief, has said publicly that he will aggressively pursue any new policies he thinks are necessary to prevent racial profiling by police. But Bolton also says he will not release numbers already in his possession that might show whether some arrests, especially for failure to ID, indicate a pattern of racial profiling.

I tried to talk to Middlebrooks to find out why she won't allow the review board to look into this issue. I did reach her one time, but when she heard what I wanted to talk about, she hung up and then refused to take my calls.

I left her a phone message telling her that members of her own board were assuming she was acting on instructions from the mayor. Even though I never heard from Middlebrooks, I did hear from the mayor. He said, "I don't know where you got your information that I had instructed my appointee to suppress this, but that's absolutely not true."

I asked the mayor how he felt about Bolton's refusal to provide numbers to show whether there is racial profiling in Dallas. Kirk, our first black mayor, supported Bolton. "I'm going to defer to Chief Bolton on that." But he qualified his support in an interesting way: "I'm concerned with racial profiling, and I raised that issue with Chief Bolton. As for the numbers, I might want a different approach, but I am supportive of his decision."

On this key question--the kind of highly charged issue that would have demanded absolute racial unanimity in the past--the mayor is willing to allow for some amount of complexity and difference of opinion. He personally would rather have numbers. But he's willing to ride with the chief's decision not to provide them. And he's willing to admit publicly to the difference.

I spent a long time last week discussing these questions with Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, the county's first black commissioner and a key supporter of Bolton's candidacy to become police chief. Price expressed even stronger support of Bolton than the mayor but with an even more complicated set of reservations.

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