Much has been written in recent years about racial profiling and the penalties for “driving while black.” I have known some of the perpetrators of this “crime,” and I have read extensively about it. Such arrests — or even just traffic stops on suspicion — leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouths.
First, the victims of the stops feel that they have been harassed. And the cops who make the stops often come out feeling like victims, too, after their cases are made public and they suffer the consequence of their bad decisions. They thought they were doing the right thing, but they were poorly trained and poorly supervised, and that’s not a good way to run anything — especially a police department.
What is not as well known outside the black community is that you do not have to be in an automobile to draw suspicion if you happen to be of the “black persuasion.”
This was made clear recently when The Post and Courier reported that two black College of Charleston students were stopped and questioned by a Charleston police officer while walking to Addlestone Library at night. The female officer demanded identification and wanted to know why they were there and where they were going.
According to the P&C, “When they asked her why she had stopped them, she at first would say only that she stopped them because they were two black men.”
One of the men said that a campus police officer, who knew him to be a student, stood by and watched as the interrogation took place and did not speak up. The Charleston police officer eventually explained that there had been a robbery in the area and she was looking for suspects.
Something like this probably happens in Charleston every day. That day came for Rebecca Wright and Tina Green on Sept. 11, 2009. Both women are employees of Charleston County Public Library, Wright on the circulation desk, Green as a security guard.
The two left the library on foot early that evening, stopping at the Apple store on King Street, where Wright bought a cord for her iPhone. From there they headed up the street to La Hacienda, where they planned to meet friends for dinner. Green was wearing her security uniform; Wright still wore her library identification badge.
As they waited for their friends in front of the restaurant, they saw two cops walking up the street toward them. The cops stopped, and one of them asked, “So where are those earrings you stole?” Wright and Green looked at each other. “Come on,” the cop demanded. “Show me the earrings.”
Wright and Green were handcuffed and frisked by the two male cops, as people inside the restaurant and on the street watched. The cops went through their bags and pockets. At one point, one of them found the ring of keys to the library in Green’s pocket and seemed exultant that he had recovered the purloined earrings.
One of the cops took Wright’s and Green’s photo IDs to the local jewelry store that had reported the theft. He returned 15 minutes later, declared that they were no longer suspects, and released them. Wright and Green were so embarrassed by the incident that they went with their friends to another restaurant for dinner.
They filed complaints with the local office of the NAACP and the Charleston Police Department. They were called in for an interview by the police department’s internal affairs division, but they didn’t hear anything more about it.
Freelance writer Darryl Wellington has had many run-ins with cops and other authorities in downtown Charleston, he told me by e-mail from New Mexico. Two of the most memorable occurred in Addlestone Library. While he was not a College of Charleston student or faculty member, the library is a public building. The two times he has entered the library, he has been accosted by security. On the second occasion, he asked the guard why he was being stopped. He was told that a library staffer had reported him for “walking around.”
When he told his white friends about these incidents, the typical reaction was, “Well, that never happens to me.” And, of course, it doesn’t happen to white people — that’s the point. But it happened to Wellington so often that two years ago he finally decided to leave the Holy City.
Wright and Green did not indicate that they are ready to leave town, but Green told me that police need better training to avoid making this kind of mistake again. She is right, of course, and part of that would be sensitivity training.