Driving While Black

The Problem of Racial Profiling and How Police Are Counteracting It

Inside the NYPD
Driving While Black
Bensonhurst 2000

Photos of a Feb. 26 protest in Midtown Manhattan in which New Yorkers of different races and ages demonstrated outrage with the aquittal of four police officers in the killing Amadou Diallo, a 22-year old West African immigrant shot at 41 times in the vestibule of his apartment.

Photos by
Andrea Daugirdas

By Tamara Cella '00

"Yes, I do look at a black man walking down the street differently than a white man," confessed a Manhattan police officer, standing outside a popular Manhattan dance club. Though he asked to remain anonymous, he is one of the few willing to talk about the controversy engrossing the city and the police department in the aftermath of the Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima incidents.

One year and forty-one bullets later, the four Bronx officers who shot Diallo to death because they thought he had a gun, are free men. Gloria Rivera, a Bronx woman who took part in the protests against the verdict, said, "If Amadou Diallo was a white man, he'd be alive today. White people don't get shot at like that. It's not fair."

Did Justin Volpe, the Brooklyn officer now in jail for sodomizing Louima with a plunger, decide to abuse the Haitian immigrant because of his color? "Of course, Louima was abused because of he's black," said Fritz Charles, who is also a Haitian immigrant. "I thought Americans were supposed to be equal."

In the past few weeks, there have been two more shootings of unarmed black men in New York City, who police suspected of being drug dealers. The website of the American Civil Liberties Union charges "that ten of thousands... across the country are victims of racial profiling. [These actions are] fueled by the "War on Drugs" that has given police a pretext to target people who they think fit a 'drug courier' or 'gang member' profile."

The New York Police Department has no direct comment on the issue, nor has it spoken publicly of addressing this growing problem. Many officers are willing to offer their opinion, but never for publication with their names attached.

"I try not to make it an issue," said a Brooklyn officer, who works in Bay Ridge, "but judging from the guys we bring in -- sometimes you have to look at race first."

"Sometimes it's a real pain in the ass," said an officer in the Long Island City section of Queens. "I feel like I can't approach someone because I don't want to be accused of being racist."

"I really don't think it's an issue of race, most NYPD officers are okay about it," said an officer in Manhattan's Financial District. He blames the recent shootings on the Department's "Operation Condor," a federally funded program that provides police officers with overtime pay and other incentives to go out on drug arrests. It bases reward on the number of arrests, not the quality of the arrests.

"We are trained as officers to respect everyone, it doesn't matter if you are talking about Condor or race. That's the main part of our training," said a Manhattan officer pointing to his badge. "That's what being an officer is all about."

The training the officer referred to is known as CPR, which stands for Courtesy, Professionalism, and Respect. Yet at a recent press conference about police relations with the community, Bronx City Councilman Jose Rivera said the meaning of the acronym had changed: "It stands for some Cops Practicing Racism," he said.

"The CPR program is looked at as a mandatory code of conduct," said Officer Timothy F. "It's the manner an officer should carry himself with at all times."

Police Academy training covers race relations extensively, with repeated lectures on race relations and a whole section of the program devoted to race, according to Anthony B., a recent graduate. "There was a lot of emphasis put on this before graduation, a lot more emphasis than ever before. They told us this was due to the latest issues surrounding the NYPD."

"They don't make the lectures biased though," he said. "They give officers the sense on how to deal with all people, regardless of race, religion..."

"But honestly," he said, "if you came into the academy a racist, a few lectures and some training aren't going to change you." Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's office has formed a task force on police-community relations. The New York Civil Liberties Union was a major part of the task force, a representative said, but backed out after deciding it was a public relations ploy.

These measures are a start, said Joanne, a college student, who said she has been a victim of profiling. She did not want her full name published. "People say it's a nuisance, yes it is, but it's also a violation of my civil rights." she said, "I thought we were all supposed to have equal rights, apparently not - as long as officers profile. Profiling is much more than what people make it to be, driving while black is only a piece. Try 'Breathing While Black.'"

"I was walking home alone from a party, at about 2 in the morning, and I was stopped by 2 white officers. First they asked me why I was in Bay Ridge then when I told them I lived around the corner, they asked for ID. I was with them for over 15 minutes, while the questioned me," she said. "I know if I was a white female, they wouldn't have stopped me."

Angel, a 24-year-old Queens resident said he's been stopped in his car and on the street a number of times, "Yeah, it's a pain sometimes," Angel said, "but I'm kind of happy they do it. I think it's nice to know my neighborhood is safe. Even though I know I get stopped because I'm dark-skinned - it's just a safety precaution."