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.
"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.
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).
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.
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."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.