Profiled In Prince George's

By Leonard Pitts Jr., a columnist for the Miami Herald (THE WASHINGTON POST, 02/12/06):

I have a question for Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson and Police Chief Melvin C. High.

It concerns my youngest son, who is 21. He was walking to his car at Bowie Town Center after working a shift at one of the stores there Sunday night when a police officer met him at his car and asked if he had seen anything "suspicious." Bryan said no. The officer asked where he was coming from. Bryan told him. The officer asked for his license and registration. Bryan gave them to him.

After 20 minutes my son was allowed to drive away. Less than two minutes later he was pulled over, still at the mall. He asked why. "I'll ask the questions," said this officer. The questions were: Where are you going, where are you coming from? Again, Bryan answered. Again, he was asked for his license and registration. A few minutes later, he was ordered out of his car with his hands up, and police began to search the vehicle.

Six police cars converged on this scene. Having received a call from a friend who happened to be at the mall, I went, too.

I went because there are periods when Prince George's police pull one or another of my sons over about once a week. I went because a police officer once Maced my middle son in the face -- five people saw this -- for no reason. I went because that son was once punched in the face by a Prince George's officer while handcuffed. I went because of the time that police, looking for a 5-foot-7 suspect, arrested Bryan, who is 6-foot-3. I went because a police officer cursed my 16-year-old daughter one night after she refused to leave the safe and lighted area where she was waiting for her mom to pick her up from the movies. I went because I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.

And I went because of the obstructed windshield.

That's what it said on the citation when Bryan was pulled over last year. He went to court and took the "obstruction" with him: one of those air fresheners in the shape of a Christmas tree. The judge barely bothered to hide her contempt while dismissing the charges.

Sunday night at the mall, I got into an argument with a couple of officers and mentioned that incident as an example of blatant, oppressive harassment. One officer responded that "technically" the citation was correct.

I found that a telling defense. I mean, "technically," you can probably be arrested for spitting on the sidewalk. How can citizens have confidence in police who justify such transparent harassment with such flimsy excuses? That's what I asked those officers and, receiving no satisfactory reply, now ask their superiors.

One police officer answered my question with a question: "What does a drug dealer look like?" he asked. The implication being that, because you can never tell who the bad guy is on sight, police must sometimes be creative in finding reasons to stop people they have suspicions about.

I might find it easier to buy that argument if the people who are being stopped didn't always seem to look pretty much the same -- that is, pretty much like my son: young, black and male. Maybe I'm wrong, but I suspect there aren't all that many white women who have to show up in court because of air fresheners. No, when you go to the courthouse, virtually all the people you see telling it to the judge (and "virtually all" is an overwhelming percentage, even in a county that is 65 percent African American) are black.

If somebody commits a crime -- my son or anybody else's son -- he or she should pay the price. I mean that. And I respect police who do that difficult and often thankless job with honor. I mean that, too. But the price my sons pay in being stopped with such regularity has nothing to do with crime, and I cannot respect arrogance, rudeness, wrongness and racial profiling that hide behind a badge.

It's no accident that this department spent years under investigation by the Justice Department for federal civil rights violations. Or that a 2001 government study found Prince George's police more brutal in dealing with black suspects than white ones. Or that a 2001 report in The Post found that Prince George's police shoot more people -- half of them unarmed -- than virtually any other urban department in the country.

For years we have been promised that all this will change. Yet there sits my son on the ground while police write up a citation. Windows too darkly tinted and an open-container violation -- which my son strongly denies -- are the latest excuses.

How can I respect a police force that operates like this? Until the county executive and the police chief give a better answer than their officer did Sunday, I'll assume they don't know either.