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Profiling, Racial and Otherwise

The officers informed me and my fellow detainee that we fit the description of two assault suspects.

I was coming home from the Upper East Side one evening and was waiting for a bus on 96th Street between Third Avenue and Lexington Avenue. The M96 bus was coming to whisk me to the A train on the other side of Central Park. A pleasant old woman there engaged me in conversation. She told me how several generations of her family had been living on West 97th Street going back to her grandmother who immigrated from Russia. She told me how she worked part-time in a movie theater, even gave me a ‘South Park’ CD-ROM for my computer. We talked about our roots in New York and our love of the city, we spoke about the latest films, including the Jackass movie.

As I spoke with the old woman, I noticed two NYPD patrol cars pull up across the street. One officer on foot was looking over in the direction of the bus stop and talking to officers in one of the cars. I didn’t think much of it. Other people arrived and there were at least nine or ten people waiting at the bus stop by now.

The bus arrived, only to be blocked in by three NYPD cruisers with their lights flashing. Several cops got out.

"You two, come here," ordered one officer. He was pointing to me and another man.

"Me?" I asked, pointing to myself.

Indeed they did mean me. I and another man were taken aside and everyone else was allowed on the bus.

"Where are you guys going?" the cop in charge asked us.

"First of all, we are not together " said the other man who had been stopped, a short, harmless-looking Puerto Rican with a trim beard and glasses. He took a step away from me. "I do not know this guy at all."

I told the cops that I was trying to get the bus to go to the A train and home to Inwood. The officers informed me and my fellow detainee that we fit the description of some assault suspects.

The old woman I had been talking to was staring at me from within the bus. She wore an expression as if she was either offended at how the police could stop a perfectly nice young man like me or horrified that she had been speaking to a monster that was being pursued by the police.

The cops moved their cruisers and let the bus drive away. I and my short Puerto Rican comrade just missed the bus. After a few rudimentary questions, another squad car came by with one or two civilians drove by slowly as another car shone a bit light on us.

We were not the suspects the police sought. The sergeant in charge said that two officers would fill out some necessary paperwork documenting our detention and then would take us across town so we could catch our trains.

The two officers who remained behind asked me and my fellow detainee for our ID. I handed over my driver’s license. After a few seconds, the officer that was filling out the paperwork on me took a hard look at my license and said, "This is something you don’t see every day."

He showed me his nametag. It read SHEAHAN – he and I had the same exact last name. [SHEAHAN is an Irish name, which comes from the Gaelic and means "son of a peacemaker". Most people with our last name spell it ‘Sheehan’, and most Sheahans and Sheehans can trace their roots to County Cork in Ireland.] From the brief discussion I had with Officer Sheahan, we were not related as far as we could tell. He said he was from Long Island, I grew up mostly in Yonkers. The cops gave me and my fellow detainee a ride across town and I caught the train uptown without further incident. I could not help being impressed with their professionalism. Although I didn’t enjoy being detained and questioned by the police, if it were I that had been mugged or assaulted, I’d want the cops to shake down anyone who even remotely fit the description of the suspect(s).

The issue of racial profiling by police gained a lot of attention following a non-lethal shooting of Black and Hispanic teenagers in a van by New Jersey state troopers and after an NYPD street crimes unit shot and killed Amadou Diallo in the Bronx. Though in both incidents the police fired when they believed they were being attacked (the New Jersey state troopers thought the van’s driver was trying to run them over, the NYPD cops thought Amadou Diallo was retrieving a gun when he pulled out his wallet).

Stopping and frisking Black and Hispanic men to play the odds that one might have a weapon, drugs, or a warrant out on them is racial profiling. Stopping and frisking Blacks and Hispanics in search of a Black or Hispanic suspect is not racial profiling. Over the past twenty years, a cottage industry evolved in New York of accusing the police of being racist, brutal, even murderous. Not that the NYPD doesn’t have its share of bad cops – it certainly does. But many of the incidents that have brought Rev. Al Sharpton and his gullible followers out to the streets have often been grossly distorted. The unmentioned scandal in the Amadou Diallo shooting was that the four cops involved were actually charged with murder despite no evidence supporting such a charge.

Racial profiling is perfectly acceptable when used on white folks unlucky enough not to have dependable drug contacts. If the police had seen me emerge from a mostly Black or Hispanic housing project, they might have stopped me on the assumption I was there to buy drugs.

Much of the hostility aimed at the police over the past eight years was generated by ill will that minorities rightfully felt towards former NYC mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who could always be counted on to take credit for the NYPD’s successes and pose before rows of heroic cops, but was consistently missing in action when it came time to give those heroic cops a raise.

But Giuliani is no longer mayor, and the current police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, even met with Al Sharpton. Absent any new incidents, relations between minorities and police appear to be on the mend and crime continues to go down. 2001 marked the first year since 1963 that there were fewer than 600 homicides in New York City.

A week after being stopped, I again took the M96 bus from the Upper East Side. The bus driver recognized me and asked me about what had happened the week before. I told them that the police mistook me for an assault suspect.

The driver, a jovial middle-aged Black man, pointed his thumb at me and looked at some of his Black passengers in his mirror. "They thought he was Black – I mean, they thought he was an assault suspect," he laughed.

"Maybe it’s because of my shaved head," I said. "A lot of Black guys have the shaved head nowadays."

The driver thought this was funny as well, and related a few other humorous tales about his job. "I turn the bell off – the bell that rings when passengers request a stop. The light still works but I turn the bell off. The other night a woman pressed the tape to request a stop and when the bell didn’t ring she came up to me and said ‘Your thing doesn’t work.’ I said ‘My thing worked fine last night.’ She said ‘What?’ I said ‘I mean the bell was working fine last night.’"

I left the bus back on Central Park West. The bus driver and I wished each other a good evening, and I was on my way into the subway system, happy that the bustling camaraderie that holds New York City together was still strong.

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