Frame Game

The Diallo Verdict: Rational Profiling?

The Amadou Diallo verdict poses difficult questions about racially charged stereotyping. Is it acceptable to treat a man like a criminal because people who look like him have committed crimes before? Can jurors be presumed unqualified because of their race or where they live? In judging a defendant’s guilt, should you consult your experience with others of his race? Those who argued for acquittal in the Diallo case are guilty of invoking such inferences–but so are those who argued for conviction. They’re “profiling” the cops and jurors just as surely as those cops profiled Diallo.

Certainly, the cops who shot Diallo did so because of racial inferences. On Larry King Live hours after the verdict, New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir explained, “These three crime officers were on patrol, looking for a specific individual who happened to be an African American, who was a suspect in a number of rapes. Mr. Diallo fit that description. … They approached him because, as I said, they were looking for a rapist that he fit the description of. They saw him going in and out of his doorway–in their view, acting suspiciously. They believed they had reasonable suspicion to stop him, and that’s what led to the original confrontation.” Diallo brought out his wallet. In the dark, the officers thought it was a gun, and they shot him dead.

At every juncture, the cops pushed the tragedy forward by interpreting Diallo’s behavior as that of a stereotypical black hoodlum. He “fit the description” of the black man they were searching for. By “going in and out of his doorway,” he was “acting suspiciously.” When he drew his wallet, they assumed it was a gun. Bill Bradley summarized the problem succinctly in his response to the verdict: “When racial profiling seeps so deeply into somebody’s mind, a wallet in the hand of a white man looks like a wallet, but a wallet in the hand of a black man looks like a gun.”

Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Johnnie Cochran, and other civil rights advocates denounce the verdict and the “profiling” that led to Diallo’s death. But “profiling” goes both ways. Based on previous misconduct by other white officers–and even other police departments–the anti-profilers impute similarly egregious racism to the officers who shot Diallo. On CNN, Jackson likened the Diallo case to the “illegal, heinous behavior” of the cops who tortured Abner Louima and to the prolonged, deliberate beating of Rodney King by several Los Angeles officers. At a rally Saturday, Sharpton said of the Diallo shooting, “This was Rodney King multiplied by lead.” He warned that “other reckless cops” might “take target practice on our children.”

Likewise, the anti-profilers are justifiably angry that the courts moved the trial out of the Bronx (which is 38 percent black) to Albany (which is 9 percent black) based on the assumed inability of Bronx jurors to judge the officers fairly. Safir and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani frame this argument in terms of a “carnival atmosphere” in the Bronx. Safir told CNN, “The majority of the people in the Bronx like their police. When I go to town hall meets in the Bronx, in Brooklyn, or Queens or in Manhattan, I don’t hear complaints about police officers. I don’t hear accusations of profiling.” But if that’s true, then why not let Bronx jurors try the case? The answer is obvious: The defense profiled Bronx jurors and decided they were too likely to convict the cops. As Safir put it, “Your typical police bashers had demonstrated and had prejudged these police officers.” And based on your typical bashers, the police commissioner had prejudged your typical jurors.

But again, the anti-profilers made similarly gross inferences about jurors in both cities. Never mind that four of the 12 Albany jurors were black. After the verdict, Sharpton protested that the move from the Bronx to Albany “made it where we had no chance, in our opinion, of real justice.” Cochran argued that the case should have been tried in the Bronx because “the people in the Bronx understand the police in the New York City much more than the people in Albany” do. In other words, Cochran assumes that residents of the Bronx would have judged the officers based on the past behavior of other officers–and should have done so.

You can argue the question of “profiling” either way. You can say that the officers shouldn’t have inferred anything from Diallo’s race, and that the rest of us shouldn’t infer anything about the verdict from the race of those officers or of their jurors. Or you can say that in both cases, “profiling” is rational. As Alan Keyes put it last week in South Carolina, “If our police and enforcement people have the experience that a given crime is disproportionately being committed by folks from a given ethnic group, we are now going to pass a law that says you can’t notice that? … We can’t notice the characteristics of individuals who commit crimes and develop profiles to help folks pursue the solving of crimes based on our experience? … Prejudice is an opinion you form apart from experience, prior to experience. An opinion formed based on experience is not prejudice. It is judgment. And I think our law enforcement officers ought to be able to [use that].”

You can agree or disagree with Keyes, but you can’t have it both ways. As the reaction to the Diallo case illustrates, profiling is far more pervasive than its critics pretend–and far subtler than black and white.

Related in Slate: On Saturday, New York City Police Department detective Lucas Miller wrote about the reaction to the Diallo verdict among the NYPD rank and file: “In my office–and, I suspect, in most of the rest of the police department–there were no cheers of joy. … The system did not fail those four cops, but it did fail Amadou Diallo.”