Take Me for a Ride
On Friday, August 4, I spent the night driving around Frogtown with a cop. My motivation was to learn about the neighborhood, the poorest and most racially diverse in St. Paul. I also hoped to develop some level of trust with the St. Paul Police Department for the sake of future stories. Two months earlier I had done the same thing--what journalists refer to as a "ride-along"--on the city's East Side. On both occasions I took notes, but I also informed the officers that I wasn't going to write about my experiences that night.
The officer I was assigned to was a longtime St. Paul beat cop with years of experience patrolling Frogtown. He was also white. I'll call him Bob Gray. We spent the evening dropping by neighborhood bars, pestering purported drug dealers, and responding to calls for assistance. Officer Gray pointed out drug dens along Edmund Avenue and dope dealers cruising around the Speedy Market. That night Frogtown was under "Heavy Enforcement Activities," or HEAT, during which St. Paul floods a neighborhood with police. The goal is to dramatically reduce crime over a short period of time in hopes that it will have a long-term impact. On the street this translated into as many as six patrol cars responding to each call that came over the radio. The only real excitement occurred near the end of the shift when a gun was fired in a convenience-store parking lot. Almost everyone Bob Gray dealt with that night was black.
Near the end of the ride-along, the topic of racial profiling surfaced. Gray had some strong views on the subject. He believed that police were being unfairly portrayed as racists for simply doing their jobs. After all, Gray noted, it's not the fault of cops if minorities are caught up in more than their share of crime.
Last month the St. Paul Police Department released data tracking traffic stops from April 15 to December 15. It showed that blacks and Hispanics are subjected to searches in disproportionate numbers to whites. In other words, the data suggested that racial profiling might be a problem in St. Paul. A week later the Minneapolis Police Department released its own study illustrating that minority drivers are more likely to be pulled over than white drivers. The media response was vociferous: There were calls from legislators for more studies, denials from the police unions that racial profiling exists, and endless debates over what to do with the data. Anecdotes from minority drivers who felt they'd been unduly harassed for "driving while black" flooded the airwaves.
What was sorely lacking in the coverage was a look at how the issue actually plays out on the streets among rank-and-file officers. What are the perceptions of racial profiling among beat cops? Do they consider race when they hit the siren and make an unwelcome intrusion into someone's life? Do they think race and ethnicity should play a role in police work?
So I thought of Bob Gray. I called him up and told him I wanted to ride with him again with the intention of writing a story about racial profiling. He agreed, with one caveat: It had to be cleared through Michael Jordan, the St. Paul Police Department's public information officer.
I laid out my idea to Jordan. He said no. Or, more precisely, Jordan offered to set me up with an officer other than Bob Gray for another Frogtown ride-along. I agreed.
When I showed up at police headquarters at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 25, the officer I was supposed to ride with informed me that she was not willing to be quoted in the newspaper. She had not been told that I intended to use the ride-along as a means to write about the issue of racial profiling. After conferring with her boss to see if another officer on duty that night might be willing to have a reporter tag along, I was told I was out of luck.
Back to Michael Jordan. I explained to him what happened. "Well," Jordan sighed, pausing for several seconds, "I'm at a loss of where to connect you."
Why can't I ride with Bob Gray?
"'Cause I don't want to position him as speaking for the St. Paul Police Department," Jordan answered. "Officer [Gray] can say whatever he wants. The fact that some officer feels X, Y, or Z doesn't mean that's where the police department stands." He didn't offer an explanation as to why this particular officer was an unfit representative of the police department.
Why was Jordan willing to have me ride with Officer Gray six months ago but not now? "Maybe he was the only guy on that shift who was willing to have somebody ride along with him who was a reporter with City Pages," Jordan speculated. "Your paper doesn't have a particularly high standing with many of them."
Brad Jacobsen, head of the St. Paul Police Federation, proffers a different theory of Jordan's resistance to letting me ride with Officer Gray. "[He] is not the person they want you talking to because he will speak his mind," says Jacobsen.
Jacobsen maintains that racial profiling is not a problem and that the preliminary study conducted by St. Paul has done more harm than good by spreading misperceptions. "I do not agree with citizens of this community who say racial profiling goes on in this city," he says. Specifically, Jacobsen questions the thoroughness of the St. Paul study and notes that it was not analyzed with the use of current demographic information, which would undoubtedly reflect a marked increase in the city's minority population. But even if a more exacting study were to be conducted, Jacobsen says he would only endorse it if participation by cops was voluntary and anonymous.
Jacobsen concedes that poor people--who are disproportionately minorities--are more likely to have encounters with police, but he maintains that there's a simple reason for this. "The crime is more open; it's out on the street," he says. "How easy is it for us to bust the wealthy white person smoking or selling crack out of their house versus somebody standing on a street corner? Who are we going to bust easier? I'd venture to guess it's near impossible to get the first one."
It's difficult to determine whether Jacobsen has a legitimate grievance, or whether he is simply rationalizing away an entrenched problem. That's because the only way to get beyond the statistics, anecdotal evidence, and knee-jerk denials is to look at how this issue plays out on the streets of neighborhoods like Frogtown and the East Side. If a judge was accused of racial bias, reporters could sit in his courtroom and describe what goes on so that readers can decide for themselves. When the fire department or police department is saddled with charges of employment discrimination, its hiring records are fair game. But looking at how cops deal with citizens on a day-to-day basis? Off-limits.
Then again, I guess this should come as no surprise. "With very few exceptions police are not very forthcoming about things that are not going to make them look good," notes Jane Kirtley, the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota. "It's the classic case of censorship by denial of access to information." But, Kirtley also notes, it's totally the police department's right to do so. There are no laws against refusing to talk to the press.
The police control the access; the police control the story.
If any police officer--in St. Paul or anywhere else--would like to speak about racial profiling, please call Paul Demko at (612) 372-3754.
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