The right profile

Racial profiling — or even just the possibility of it — by those charged with upholding the law is an extremely sensitive issue, involving questions of potential prejudice, abuse of power and hidden motives.

For law-enforcement personnel, trying to gauge whether illegal activity is taking place — often in stressful or ambiguous situations with the very real potential for threats to their own safety — is a tough job. Yet at the same time, citizens have a right to be free from harassment, unreasonable searches or the assumption that they're involved in something illegal based solely on their race or social status.

Camping on the Parkway: Navy veteran and student Russell Johnson near the spot where he was detained by Park Rangers after he greeted them and asked for directions. Photos by Jonathan Welch

"It fluctuates, but we do see a significant amount of profiling, including in Asheville," says staff attorney Rebecca Headen of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, who heads up the group's Racial Justice Project. "It's very commonly connected to a traffic stop, pedestrian or bicycle encounter."

Asheville Police Department spokesperson Melissa Williams, however, emphasizes the delicate balancing act police work entails. "They try to make an admittedly unpleasant situation tolerable — but officers can't ignore activity that appears suspicious, even if it would be inconvenient if they turn out to be mistaken in their perception. If officers can articulate reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, they can and do investigate," she notes.

"Our officers are well aware that no one likes getting stopped by the police, even for something as basic as a license check. That is why they do their best to treat people in a professional manner and to be polite."

In Asheville, the local branch of the NAACP pursues many complaints about racial profiling, and President John Hayes says he sees real grievances but also a need for a better informed public.

"Profiling happens, but what we try to do is educate people, help them understand what makes [an incident] profiling or what makes it a justified stop," Hayes explains. "People get pulled over, and plenty of them assume it's profiling. Well, maybe it was and maybe it wasn't."

In the incidents described below, two area residents — both with clean criminal records — maintain that their race was a factor in what they see as unjust treatment by local law-enforcement agencies.

Here's a look at those cases, along with what statistics reveal about this controversial topic.

The veteran

Russell Johnson grew up around the Blue Ridge Parkway and had always enjoyed it.

"I'm an avid hiker — I used to go up there three, four times a week," he explains. "As a child I was always up there with my family, going on picnics."

But on April 17, 2008, Johnson, a Navy veteran who's now attending Mars Hill College, was pulled over by two National Park Service rangers near Weaverville.

"I had my windows down; I didn't have a cigar or anything. I was just riding on the Parkway to study," recalls the Asheville resident. "They jumped out, asked if I had any drugs in the car, asked what I was doing up on the Parkway, if I had any alcohol. They said they pulled me over because they saw a burn hole in my passenger-side seat (my girlfriend is a smoker). I wish I had glasses that could see that far."

The rangers asked Johnson if they could search the car — he refused, though he invited them to "look wherever you want" without actually opening the doors — and ran a license check. In video the Park Service later gave to Johnson at his request, two rangers can be seen circling the car and looking through the windows while Johnson leans against the vehicle, reading a copy of the U.S. Constitution ("I figured I'd better have my rights ready," he says).

Walking down the street: Local musician Jonathan Scales near the spot where a police officer stopped him, thinking his handshake with his realtor was a hand-to-hand drug transaction

For some reason, the video begins in the middle of the traffic stop, with the rangers already in possession of Johnson's license, rather than at the beginning of the encounter. While they wait for his record to come back, Johnson tells the rangers he appreciates what they do, and one of them mentions several recent drug arrests and drunk-driving incidents on the Parkway.

"I thought, 'Well, what does that have to do with me? Are they pulling over everyone because of that?'" Johnson recalls. "I was clean; there was no reason for them to do anything."

After handing back his license, the rangers question Johnson for several minutes about where he came from and where he's headed. At the end of the video, they can be seen walking up to a white couple.

"How you folks doing today?" one ranger asks, before wishing them a good day and departing.

The incident, says Johnson, left him somewhat reluctant to go up to the Parkway. The next time he did so was July 25, on a camping trip with his girlfriend.

"We wanted to get away from the Bele Chere weekend crowds," he remembers. "The park rangers were breaking down a DUI checkpoint, and I was taking pictures on the Mills River Bridge. The moon was a sliver: It was red and so beautiful, and I just had to get a picture."

Johnson's car was parked on the other side of the bridge, and he walked over to talk to the rangers before heading back to his vehicle.

"When I walked up to one of the cars — there were four at the entrance — I waved and said, 'I really appreciate what y'all are doing, keeping us safe on the Parkway.' I asked how long it would take to get to Pisgah from here," says Johnson, who wanted to get more photographs before the light faded. "He told me — and this is a park ranger — he didn't know what I was talking about."

On video, Johnson can be clearly seen walking up to the car and waving, though his words aren't audible. Three rangers emerge from surrounding vehicles and direct Johnson to put his hands behind his back.

"I obliged, and they started searching me, going through my little fanny pack, which just had my flashlight, my compass — things you use in the woods," says Johnson. "One of the rangers grabbed my hands and shoved them up between my shoulder blades."

The impact was so hard that Johnson will now require surgery for a damaged disc, hospital documents confirm. "I get dizzy: I'm a disabled veteran with some nerve troubles; this didn't help things," he says.

The video clearly shows Johnson with his hands behind his back and the rangers searching him.

The rangers then went through his fanny pack, which had camping gear inside it, took his car keys, and one vehicle drove across the bridge to Johnson's car. While the video doesn't make it clear if the rangers searched his vehicle, Johnson believes they did.

"They're not supposed to do that," he says, adding, "The doors were unlocked when I came back."

In the video, the rangers can be seen leaning Johnson against the side of a patrol car and quizzing him about his girlfriend's number after discovering that he has her cell phone and debit card. (Johnson had left her back at the campsite while he went to get supplies.)

"I was just asking a question; now I got to get searched and everything?" Johnson says to them. (See sidebar, "Know Your Rights.")

"When you walk up asking questions with someone else's card in your pocket," the ranger replies, after asserting that he'd spotted a big bulge in Johnson's shirt.

"Oh, I see; I understand," Johnson responds, after which the rangers ask him if he's carrying guns or drugs.

"I knew, at that point, they were making that assumption; that's what I understood," he told Xpress later.

Following the license check, the rangers let Johnson go, and he tells them again that he understands, that there are no hard feelings.

But Johnson says now that the experience has stayed with him, both physically and mentally. "I went to the VA hospital; I've been taking muscle relaxers to help reduce the inflammation [caused by their jerking my hands up]," Johnson reports. "I have a lot of friends who won't go on the Parkway because of this."

Only about 1 percent of visitors to national parks are African-American, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of the Interior. Johnson believes that the way he was treated was a result of racial profiling, citing the contrasting treatment afforded the white couple.

Accordingly, Johnson has hired an attorney and filed a formal complaint with the Justice Department. He's still hoping the park rangers will apologize for the incident.

But Chief Park Ranger Steve Stinnett believes the rangers have nothing to apologize for.

"We take all such complaints very seriously," he reports. "We forwarded [Johnson's complaints] to our Office of Professional Responsibility, who basically fulfill our internal-affairs function. They investigated it; they interviewed the rangers involved in both incidents and found that there was no basis for complaint."

Johnson, notes Stinnett, was not arrested or charged in either incident.

"I have absolute faith in our rangers," he adds, while declining to comment any further on the incidents.

The musician

Well-known local musician Jonathan Scales has toured around the country, his work on the steel drums drawing raves from reviewers in JazzTimes magazine and elsewhere.

But a chance encounter on Aug. 23 led to some far less positive attention, he reports.

"I came out of The Rocket Club, I saw a friend of mine, happened to be my Realtor (I was buying a house at the time). I went to say 'hey' to him, but he was on the phone and I didn't want to disturb him, so I shook his hand," remembers Scales. "I walked a couple of blocks down and this police officer stops me and asked if I knew the man at the gas station. He told me, 'I saw that handshake; it looked kind of suspicious.'"

Scales told Officer Kelly Radford that the person was his real-estate agent.

"Basically, at that point he accused me, said, 'Well, it looked like a drug deal,'" Scales relates. "I was shocked. I've never done drugs a day in my life. He took my ID; he asked if I minded if he searched me. I told him I did mind, that I hadn't done anything wrong; he would just be wasting his time."

According to Scales, Radford then told him that if he was innocent, he wouldn't object to being searched.

"I didn't know a handshake counted as probable cause, that it was suspect," Scales says with a chuckle. "It was apparent I wasn't getting out of it. I refused it for about five minutes, then I let him search me. I was against the cop car, his hands on top of my hands, I got the whole pat-down treatment."

The next day, Scales went down to the West Asheville police station and e-mailed Chief Bill Hogan, requesting a sit-down with the officer in question.

"They told me he was just doing his job, that it wasn't profiling," Scales recalls. "They basically said they weren't going to do that."

Williams, the APD spokesperson, backed up that assessment, confirming that Radford did, in fact, find Scales' handshake suspicious.

"Jonathan Scales was searched by an APD officer, pursuant to consent, based on actions that appeared to the officer to be a hand-to-hand transaction of some type (and not a mere handshake greeting) on Haywood Road," she wrote Xpress in response to questions about the incident. "No contraband was discovered, and the officer apologized to Mr. Scales for delaying him."

The numbers

Asked for a breakdown of arrests by race and ethnicity, Williams told Xpress, "We don't track arrestees by race, gender, etc.," though the individual incident reports do indicate the race of everyone involved.

However, most law-enforcement agencies in North Carolina, including the APD, are required to report their traffic stops and searches, broken down by race and ethnicity, to the State Bureau of Investigation.

Between Nov. 1, 2008, and Oct. 31 of this year, the APD reported making 6,264 traffic stops. Of those stopped, 873 (13.9 percent) were African-Americans. According to census data, roughly 17 percent of Asheville residents are African-American. Hispanics, meanwhile, accounted for 215 of those APD stops (3.4 percent); 5 percent of Asheville's population is Hispanic. So, by that measure, the statistics give no hint of racial profiling.

Once stopped, however, African-American men are statistically far more likely to be searched. During that same time period, the APD reported conducting 509 car searches. Of those, 180 — more than a third — involved black males.

According to Hayes, the Asheville NAACP deals with about 20 to 30 formal complaints of racial profiling per year, and that rate's remained steady over the last decade.

"Some of them, the officer is disciplined, and sometimes they don't find in our favor," notes Hayes. "We get some real problems, plenty of them, but we also get a lot of people convinced the police pulled them over because they were black. Could be, but they need to ask what else was going on, if there's other reasons the police pulled them over."

"I can't confirm that your numbers are correct," Williams wrote in response to questions about the SBI statistics. "However, it is clear that they don't shed any light on key information such as when and where the vehicle stops/searches occurred, such as in known high-crime areas, where we are charged by the community to devote a great deal of police resources."

Asked about the training APD officers receive, she wrote, "I can tell you that our officers are trained to be effective while operating within the guidelines set forth by the U.S. Constitution, state law and department policy."

The bottom line, according to Williams, is that they "strive to do good, sound police work. They stop cars that they think need to be stopped, and when they think it's prudent, they search those vehicles."

Nonetheless, says Headen of the ACLU, the experience Scales describes — being pressed by a police officer to submit to a search — is all too common.

"That's really too bad: 'If you're innocent you'll let me search you' is one of the most common misconceptions out there, especially when an officer may assume that someone's up to something because of who they are," she says. "It is never a crime to assert your constitutional rights."

Hayes, meanwhile, encourages citizens to get educated about their rights and, if they do get stopped, to keep their cool and be attentive.

"People can get angry, let it escalate. Don't. Stay calm, look at what's going on," he counsels. "When did the police stop you? How long had they been following you? What reason did they give? If you think you've been profiled, write everything down as soon as possible; memory fades quickly — for the police and the person who gets stopped. This isn't TV."

You can reach David Forbes at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at dforbes@mountainx.com.

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23 thoughts on “The right profile

  1. AvlResident

    Between Nov. 1, 2008, and Oct. 31 of this year, the APD reported making 6,264 traffic stops. Of those stopped, 13.9 percent were African-Americans, 3.4 percent were Hispanics, with 82.7 percent presumably White. According to census date, roughly 78 percent of Asheville residents are White, suggesting that Whites are being profiled/targeted in higher proportion to their numbers in the general population. Moreover, the APD searched almost two-thirds of the White males stopped, a higher proportion than African-American men searched. APD spokeswoman denied that Whites in Asheville are being profiled.

    Nevertheless, in the interest of journalistic thoroughness, our reporter interviewed two young African-American males and did not interview any of the White males stopped and searched.

    Both men reported they were stopped and questioned about drugs. It is not known if any of the young White males stopped were questioned about drugs. In further pursuit of thoroughness, our reporter did not ask APD spokeswoman Williams what the breakdown of stops and searches was among males, females, young and older residents, how many of these were drug-related and how many of the drug-related stops involved older drivers. If, in fact, young people are being stopped on suspicion of drug-related offenses out of proportion to the elderly in Asheville’s population, the APD may be engaged in youth-profiling.

    When questioned, Mountain Express reporter David Forbes said his editor had not suggested he pursue that angle or interview any of the White males stopped, only the two incidents with black males, one of which involved a well-known local musician who has drawn raves from reviewers in JazzTimes magazine and elsewhere.

    “We are shocked that the APD did not recognize this well-known musician and realize he had been reviewed in JazzTimes,” Forbes said. Mountain Express is highly regarded for its thorough coverage of the local youth music scene. “The well-known local musician has been mentioned ten times in Mountain Express in the last year,” Forbes said, “making it doubly puzzling that the APD did not know him.” Forbes confirmed, however, that the musician is not known personally to any of the editors or writers.

  2. Mister Blister

    I thought park rangers were supposed to be a little cooler than this. I would say it isn’t their job “to stop cars they think need to be stopped,” rather it is their job to stop cars that are breaking the law… and not the backwoods, inbred, redneck, “DWB” law — “Driving While Black” Thank you.

  3. Mister Blister

    When they think it’s PRUDENT? PRUDENT? How about when it is LAWFUL Mister Redneck Lawman?? Ever hear of “Reasonable Cause”? Get rid of these rabid jerks.

  4. Leo

    Mr. Blister, I haven’t heard the of “reasonable cause.” Mr. Scales is right in saying that a handshake is not probable cause. It wasn’t treated as probable cause, but as reasonable suspicion.

    Reasonable suspicion is a step BEFORE probable cause. At the point of reasonable suspicion, it appears that a crime may have been committed. The situation escalates to probable cause when it becomes obvious that a crime has most likely been committed. Probable cause is enough for a search or arrest warrant. It’s also enough for a police officer to make an arrest if s/he sees a crime being committed.

    Reasonable suspicion is, honestly, a common- sense proposition. Courts will credit the practical experience of officers who observe on a daily basis what transpires on the street. While a person’s mere presence in a high crime area is not by itself enough to raise reasonable suspicion, an area’s propensity toward criminal activity is something that an officer may consider — particulary in an area (like Haywood Road in the middle of summer) when s/he has witnessed hundreds of actual hand-to-hand drug deals go down and the community is demanding that police do something about this “obvious” criminal activity.

    But sometimes a handshake is indeed just a handshake.

    Cops may not always be right, but at least use the right terms when you’re calling us inbreds, rednecks, racists and jerks, OK?

    And may God bless you and yours.

  5. Politics Watcher

    ” . . .So, by that measure, the statistics give no hint of racial profiling. . . ”

    If the statistics give no hint of racial profiling, is this a news story or an opinion piece?

  6. boatrocker

    Thoughtful and insightful article that raises questions about suspects’ rights. Nice work. I forgive you for all the free press, brown nosing and adulation you all give Stewart David, aka the Rush Limbaugh of vegetarianism.

  7. TigerTarot

    Thanks, Leo, for your correct and well-articulated reply. I had to giggle at “Reasonable Cause”. What Mr. Scales did was, and as you pointed out, correctly treated as reasonable suspicion. There was no probable cause, and had there been, an arrest would have been made.

    Officer Radford was probably a little jerkish when saying “If you’re innocent you’ll consent to a search”, but hey, we’ve all had bad days at work and get grouchy- especially when we think someone’s lying to us. Officers aren’t on the street to be our friends, they’re on the street to enforce the law in hopes to make the community a better and safer place. It’s not a retail position where “the customer is always right”. It’s unfortunate Mr. Scales made an innocent handshake at the wrong place and time, but he was treated correctly, released, no harm and no foul. Any time I’ve seen a “handshake” on Haywood Road at night it’s not been to say hi. Let these people do their jobs and be thankful they’re on the street making an effort to keep us safe and salvage our town.

  8. ranger reject

    I thought this is what you liberals wanted, you know…a national police force, limiting people’s rights, forcing people to live like you decide, arresting people you don’t like, forcing people to do what you think is right.

  9. Emo

    It’s a bit frightening to think that African Americans put themselves at potential risk when asking for help from law enforcement.

  10. IBFarben

    What the Mountain Express writer forgot to mention is that no matter how politely you refuse to answer questions or decline being searched if you stand up for you rights you WILL be arrested. Fortunately the district attorney knows slightly more about the law and what makes a conviction and will more than likely drop any and all trumped up charges. In the meantime you either rot in jail or cough up bail money and live for 3 months in terror…..the intended punishment for refusing to be a slave.
    The ignorance of the average lawman makes him a danger to civilized and polite society and by no means should anyone, white or black, be bullied or intimidated out of asserting the rights that so many have sacrificed far more than just a beating and a few nights in jail.

  11. Piffy!

    [b]“When you walk up asking questions with someone else’s card in your pocket,” the ranger replies, after asserting that he’d spotted a big bulge in Johnson’s shirt.[/b]

    Oh, i see, they can see someone else’s Debit card in his pocket from 50 feet away.

    This S#%t angers me so deeply. Police acting in this way, DOCUMENTED ON VIDEO, must be held accountable. They are not above the law, and racial profiling is bullshit!

  12. Piffy!

    So, if the cop who searched mr. scales believes he saw a drug deal, did he search the other guy who shook scales hand?

  13. Piffy!

    [b]I thought this is what you liberals wanted, you know…a national police force, limiting people’s rights, forcing people to live like you decide, arresting people you don’t like, forcing people to do what you think is right. [/b]

    What an idiotic, ignorant, inaccurate, indefensible statement, completely devoid of any facts whatsoever.

  14. Piffy!

    Maybe if out law enforcement officers werent so often drawn from the lowest of the low as far as education and life-experience, we would have some who respect the public and actually understand the law.

    As it stands, we have people who are qualified to be mall cops enforcing the law, searching and detaining people for obviously flimsy reasons “If you’re innocent, you shoudln’t have anything to hide”.

    Pay them more, require more education, and stop hiring wanna-be thugs with an axe to grind.

  15. The Rocket Club

    To the best of my knowledge, Jonathan is the only patron who has ever been stopped and searched outside of here. His realtor (and fellow jazz musician) is white. We also filed a complaint with APD, and I had a long conversation with my APD liaison. I can’t say that I was totally satisifed by it, but I could tell that the higher ups knew their officer didn’t handle things as they would have liked him to.

    The most ironic thing about it all is the the strongest thing I have ever seen Jonathan drink is Mountain Dew. He is truly the wrong musician to search. . . BUT one you need to listen to.

  16. Micah Mackenzie

    It bothers me when a group of people of one color acts like they are the other color~ You will never know what it means to be black~ I’m not sure why this topic has me all up and rowdy~
    I live in a white old school mentality world~who taught their children the same values~Some where smart enough to see the truth and others just follow suit~
    Growing up in a upper middle class world~I had to fight the white and the black side of things~Whites didn’t always accept me for being black~ and because I talked proper, black thought I was trying to be white~! Crazy!
    All I’m saying mountain X is …I’m black and I want to work for you!~ :)

  17. MicahMack76

    It bothers me when a group of people of one color acts like they are the other color~ You will never know what it means to be black~ I’m not sure why this topic has me all up and rowdy~
    I live in a white old school mentality world~who taught their children the same values~Some where smart enough to see the truth and others just follow suit~
    Growing up in a upper middle class world~I had to fight the white and the black side of things~Whites didn’t always accept me for being black~ and because I talked proper, black thought I was trying to be white~! Crazy!
    All I’m saying mountain X is …I’m black and I want to work for you!~ :)

  18. Tummler

    PEN KAP its interesting that you made this comment: “idiotic, ignorant, inaccurate, indefensible statement, completely devoid of any facts whatsoever” about something someone else wrote when its applicable to most everything you have written. For instance, APD requires their officers to have at least two years of college. The officers who do not meet this requirement are made to sign contracts in which they agree to attain the required credit hours within a certain amount of time, otherwise, they are let go. Most of their officers have more than the minimum and many have Bachelors and Masters degrees. Also, this story is so poorly written and so obviously one-sided with regard to the two encounters that it would be foolish for you or anyone else to get as heated as you seem to be.

  19. Peacewarrior

    Ironically, in an article about possible police racial profiling, we get bigoted remarks by “Mister Blister”. ‘I thought park rangers were supposed to be a little cooler than this. I would say it isn’t their job “to stop cars they think need to be stopped,” rather it is their job to stop cars that are breaking the law… and not the backwoods, inbred, redneck, “DWB” law—“Driving While Black” Thank you.’

    The idea that federal police are “cooler” is ridiculous. Federal police are based out of Washington DC. The same Northern federal government segregated the US military from the 1770s until 1963. So much for scape goating the South as a place where racism alone resided. All you have to do to see Northern segregation is look at NYC. A more balkanized city would be hard to find, with blacks here, Jews there, whites here, Puerto Ricans there, etc. In fact, when the NY Yankees first allowed a black man to play in the previously all lilly white Northern baseball major leagues in 1947, poor Mr Robinson was subjected to withering racial taunts from his white teammates, and the racist white New Yorkers in the stands. (source: PBS special summer 2008).

    So let us stop all bigotry. Let us see each other as human beings regardless of color, or what part of the country we were raised in. In this world, there would be no special treatment for white yuppies, no discrimination against black people, and no calling of white native Ashevillians as “backwoods inbred rednecks”. 2010 is a new year. Let us start it right, without the hate!

  20. Piffy!

    [b]PEN KAP its interesting that you made this comment: “idiotic, ignorant, inaccurate, indefensible statement, completely devoid of any facts whatsoever” about something someone else wrote when its applicable to most everything you have written. For instance, APD requires their officers to have at least two years of college. The officers who do not meet this requirement are made to sign contracts in which they agree to attain the required credit hours within a certain amount of time, otherwise, they are let go. Most of their officers have more than the minimum and many have Bachelors and Masters degrees. Also, this story is so poorly written and so obviously one-sided with regard to the two encounters that it would be foolish for you or anyone else to get as heated as you seem to be. [/b]

    And yet we routinely have police violating people’s basic civil rights. Seems like they may need a refresher course or something, eh?

    Are you in any way affiliated with the APD?

  21. TigerTarot

    PenKap: “And yet we routinely have police violating people’s basic civil rights.”

    I’m interested if you have evidence for these allegations against the APD, other than the fact you just don’t like them?

  22. entopticon

    It is absolutely mind-boggling that anyone, liberal or conservative, would not be completely outraged over the treatment of Russell Johnson that was detailed above. The fact that the usual short list of xenophobic right-wingers (and their various sockpuppet accounts) all chimed in to condemn the reporting, rather than the unconscionably disgraceful treatment of a US veteran, is truly shameful.

    It is very sad to see that there really are people that are so completely oblivious of the basic issues of racial disparity in America (it’s certainly not just an Asheville or Southern problem) that they actually don’t know that whites and blacks are subject to extremely different treatment by law enforcement. Please, wake up.

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