It is undisputed that Blacks are racially profiled and discriminated against consistently by law enforcement, due to implicit bias stemming from the horrendous history of this nation. Blacks are pulled over by police, searched, and arrested at tremendously higher rates than Whites. In Washington, D.C., between 2009 and 2011, more than 8 out of 10 residents arrested were Black. The inmate population at the D.C. jail is 89.1 percent Black, but Blacks only make up 48.3 percent of the city’s population.
These figures are shocking and demonstrate how Blacks must always be prepared to demand equal treatment under the law. I recently found myself in a situation where I would need to do so.
My friends and I were passengers in a friend’s vehicle when we were pulled over by the D.C. police. We were followed by this officer for at least .25 miles prior to being stopped. We were told the reason for the stop was due to a call about a woman in distress. The officer also stated that my friend failed to signal. Both of these statements appeared to be unfounded.
After the officer collected my friend’s license and registration and returned to the vehicle, he stated that sometimes foxes are mistaken for a woman’s scream. He then issued a warning for failure to signal. My friends and I were outraged. The stop seemed to be an obvious act of racial profiling and a clear abuse of discretion. We were four young Blacks in a luxury vehicle, driving in an upper class neighborhood in the early morning hours. I shudder to imagine how this incident would have ended had my friend not indicated he lived in the neighborhood.
Fortunately, D.C. established the Office of Police Complaints (OPC) as a mechanism for residents to hold law enforcement accountable. After submitting my complaint and speaking with an OPC investigator, my case was referred to mediation. The officer provided an extensive history of his background and thought process for the stop. He said hindsight is 20/20 and described what he would have done differently. He was clearly briefed and his statements seemed a bit rehearsed, but I think he was genuinely concerned and empathetic about my frustrations.
The officer’s body worn camera footage did not capture the alleged failure to signal so it was essentially his word against mine. In the end, I agreed to resolve the complaint. It was a transformative learning experience. I was able to hear directly from the officer about his perspective of the incident and he was able to identify what he could have done differently, hopefully leading him to make better choices in the future.
I strongly encourage all residents to take advantage of the services OPC has to offer. The results are invaluable. You will feel empowered and motivated to help others fight for their rights. Let us come together and join forces to hold our government accountable to its citizens. Our collective action will effectuate movement towards a more fair and balanced justice system.
Melanie E. Bates is an attorney based in Washington, D.C. She is on the Advisory Board of Free Minds Books Club and Writing Workshop, a nonprofit organization that uses books, creative writing, and peer support to awaken D.C. youth incarcerated as adults to develop their own potential.