When I was a young man growing up in 90s Bed-Stuy Brooklyn there were certain things that I eventually grew accustomed to. There was the sound of gunshots in the night. Long hot summers where anything was possible, and violence was inevitable. Conversations that began with “Yo, did you hear about…” And being searched by the police. I was never someone who could be considered a criminal, especially not measured against the likes of the real thugs who stalked the streets day in and out in search of trouble. That’s why when I was searched regularly as a teen it always took me by surprise. I knew real criminals (you had to if you wanted to survive). And I knew that I wasn’t one. That’s why it always bothered me to be slammed against fences and walls and cars by police officers who had nothing better to do.
As a black man in a big city I find myself still feeling more nervous than safe around police. I have plenty of retired detectives and officers in my family, and even they have told me to beware. I suppose it is what it is. Of course not all cops are the same, the same way all priests don’t molest kids, and all Muslims aren’t terrorists, and all Republicans aren’t assholes. I’ve met some great cops in my past life when I was a manager at at a mental health clinic where, since we had no security guards, you were only as safe as the response time of the police. Still, seeing a patrol car in my rear-view gives me the heebie jeebies.
Earlier this week I was sniff-searched by a police dog as I tried to board the Staten Island Ferry to visit a client. This wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t already been “randomly” search about 10 times over the last few years at a variety of checkpoints in the city. There are literally millions of people in the city and plenty of them have never had to open their backpacks or drop their bag in a busy terminal to be sniffed by a moody dog. In general I don’t mind the searches – I’m no bleeding heart liberal when it comes to safety. I do, however, mind that I have been searched more than my fair share of times. In this latest incident I was trotting alongside a fellow commuter to catch a ferry that had just pulled up and that guy (white male) trotted on through the checkpoint while I was singled out yet again. It doesn’t seem random. The only thing that I can surmise at this point is that the police have been asked to randomly search people who look like me.
Profiling is not new. It has been outlawed in my city, but it obviously still exists the same way racism still exists in a country led by a black man. There must be a way to get the police trained in a way that black men doing the right thing don’t feel like a target when they are out and about in this city. The police officer who stopped me was at least almost nice about it, which is a start. There must be a way for my son to not inherit a police culture that is driven by skin color. There must be a way to educate the public about why we are where we are as a country in terms of profiling and how to move forward with an agenda of safety that is truly driven by values, behaviors, science and psychology rather than by color. I am going to start by doing this – writing and sharing. In the meantime – be safe.