Hampton: Profiling not the answer


The September 11 attacks are no excuse to reinstate racial profiling, Ronald Hampton, executive director of the National Black Police Association, said in an HLS Forum speech Wednesday.

Hampton criticized recent moves by politicians and police to allow racial profiling of Arab- and Muslim-Americans as an effective means to stop terrorism, noting that, in peacetime, those same parties have long advocated and practiced profiling of blacks and Latinos.

“In my opinion, it’s wrong,” Hampton said. “It’s unconstitutional, and we won’t never ever find the perpetrators on that basis.”

Speaking for a little less than an hour in Langdell South about racism in the justice system, Hampton expressed his concerns that recent events will allow the government too much leeway in using race in the criminal justice system. He also discussed the need for a political and popular will to resolve to reform law enforcement more generally.

He cited his experiences in the police department that showed a need for drastic reform in the way police interact both with the public and with each other.

Hampton, who served on the Washington, D.C. police force for 23 years, first encountered racism within the police department soon after he joined the force.

“My idea always was that the real power that police have was not the power to arrest but the power to affect people’s quality of life,” he said.

But Hampton was told “if you don’t like what we do, then you can leave.”

He continued: “I could see very clearly that the public was my enemy and the police were my friend. And they would say things like I had to forget my blackness — we’re all blue here. I didn’t see anybody blue in the room.”

Despite the police force’s claims of being colorless, Hampton said, conformity to the party line was required.

“The very thing that they wanted me to let go of was the thing that they would see me as later on in my career when I began to speak out against injustice,” he said. “That there was something wrong with me because I wasn’t part of the team.”

Racism in the criminal justice system also manifests itself in the ways police are allowed or prevented from exercising their discretion with arresting suspects.

Hampton was once criticized for letting a man who stole a battery go after he and his victim came to an extra-judicial resolution that suited both of the parties better than a prosecution.

That discretion, Hampton said, is a vital part of police work but, in the hands of many police officers, ends in racial profiling. Other times, discretion can be used against racial minorities, such as when police shut down clubs owned by minorities when a single drug deal is discovered on the premises.

Those abuses of discretion, Hampton said, arise because Americans have been culturally conditioned to view African-Americans poorly.

“No one wants to say race is a factor,” Hampton said, but that assertion is contradicted by research on “hit rates,” which show that equal numbers of whites and blacks who are stopped are found to be engaged in illegal activities.

“We’ve come to see black folks as criminals,” he said. “We’ve come to see black folk as involved in criminal activity. We’ve come to see black folk as suspicious.”

Racism within the police force is long-lived, Hampton said, largely because police forces were often filled through patronage.

“If I had happened to have been a police officer [30 years ago], I couldn’t have arrested a gentleman like the one wearing the yellow shirt,” he said, pointing to a white audience member. “If I saw him commit a crime I could hold him for a while, but I couldn’t arrest him. I had to call a white officer to read him his rights.

“A lot of things have changed, but very little has happened in a way that has positively impacted to eliminate race,” he said.

When Americans discuss the contributions of police, Hampton added, they rarely talk about the contributions of African-American police.

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