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Jane Ahlin, Published July 20 2013

Ahlin: What about the rights of victims of profiling?

It’s 10 o’clock in the morning. One of Fargo’s finest notices an old Lincoln sedan pull onto 10th Street South from an adjacent avenue. The driver of the Lincoln is a bearded young man. (Definitely suspicious?) Because the car pulled from an avenue on the right side of the street, barely pausing before changing lanes and speeding up quickly, the officer decides he has an excuse to pull the car over. He might have preferred a speeding violation or blinker violation, but those didn’t happen.

Before exiting his police cruiser, however, the officer calls for backup. When backup arrives, he goes to the car and asks to see the driver’s license. As the young man reaches toward his backpack on the floor of the passenger side, the officer automatically steps back and puts his hand on his gun. The driver isn’t sure what is going on and asks if something is wrong. The officer replies that most guys keep their wallets in their pants.

The young man is ordered out of the car, and although the license and registration for the car and his driver’s license all pass muster and he explains why he is in such a hurry, the police officers badger him with remarks, such as, “If you don’t have anything to hide, let us search your car.” Saying he is late, the bearded young man refuses. He refuses politely, but he refuses. And refuses. And refuses. Because the officers have no reason for searching the car, they finally let him go.

Question: Why did the officer stop the car for no legal infraction of driving laws? Was it profiling?

Would it matter if I added that the same young man was picked up six times before during a period of time less than a year and never actually cited for anything? At various times, he was frisked, asked to walk a line or blow into a breathalyzer, but there were no citations.

Another part of the story is that the young man’s parents had purchased the old Lincoln for him to drive to high school. Naïve as the parents were, they thought such a big old boat of a car would be safe; call them stupid, but it had not occurred to them that it would look like the quintessential “druggie” vehicle. They certainly weren’t thinking about the car being profiled by police, or that when their son grew a beard for a high school musical, his appearance would add to the profile.

This story is a decade old and personal, and, yes, I was the less-than-savvy mother in the story. No matter how the police viewed it, the experience clarified for me what profiling is like for those on the receiving end. I hasten to add I don’t think it’s possible for law officers not to profile to a certain extent. Good police officers view situations through a lens of training and experience and must trust their instincts.

That said, it’s also training and experience that inform what happens after they’ve acted on their instincts. In the case of our son in high school, that meant not citing him for imaginary offenses and letting him go when there was no legal reason to hold him. As frustrating as it was for him to be stopped so many times, the Fargo police officers were professional when they found nothing to pursue.

That’s what rankles me about the Trayvon Martin case: The perspective of a young person profiled through no fault of his own was lost. Florida legislators ought to be calling a special session to deal with the idiotic “stand your ground” law that allows an untrained wannabe – a vigilante in every sense of the word – to chase down an unarmed kid (whose English teacher described him as “an A and B student who majored in cheerfulness”) just because he thought the kid looked suspicious. Why was so little attention paid to how shocked and frightened Martin must have been when an adult male aggressively pursued him? All he was doing was walking with a bag of Skittles in his own neighborhood. George Zimmerman did not identify himself as a neighborhood watchman or tell Martin he had a gun. Yet, the burden was on Martin not to “frighten” Zimmerman.

Unless the law is changed, don’t call it the state of Florida; call it the Twilight Zone.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.