“Mere access to the courthouse doors does not by itself assure a proper functioning of the adversary process.” This profound quote by Thurgood Marshall succinctly illustrates the importance of knowing your rights when encountering the justice system, especially if you are African American. It is undisputed that African Americans are racially profiled and discriminated against consistently by law enforcement, due to implicit bias stemming from the horrendous history of this nation.
African Americans are pulled over by police, searched, and arrested at tremendously higher rates than whites. In Washington, D.C., between 2009 and 2011, more than 8 out of 10 residents arrested were African American. The inmate population at the D.C. jail is 89.1% African American, but African Americans only make up 48.3% of the city’s population! These figures are shocking and demonstrate how African Americans must always be prepared to demand equal treatment under the law. Unfortunately, I recently found myself in a situation where I would need to do so.
A few months ago, my friends and I were passengers in my friend's vehicle, a newer model Maserati, when we were pulled over by D.C. police for no apparent reason. We were followed by this officer for at least .25 miles prior to being stopped. We were told the reason for the stop was due to a call about a woman in distress. The officer also stated that my friend failed to use his turn signal. Both of these statements appeared to be unfounded. After the officer collected my friend's license and registration and returned to the vehicle, he stated that sometimes foxes are mistaken for a woman's scream. He then issued a warning for failure to signal. My friends and I were outraged. The stop seemed to be an obvious act of racial profiling and a clear abuse of discretion. We were four young African Americans in a luxury vehicle, driving in an upper class neighborhood in the early morning hours. I shudder to imagine how this incident would have ended had my friend not indicated he lived in the neighborhood.
Fortunately, the District of Columbia established a mechanism for residents to hold law enforcement accountable. The agency was opened in 2001 and is called the Office of Police Complaints (OPC). The stated mission of OPC is to increase community trust in the District of Columbia police forces by providing a fair, thorough, and independent system of civilian oversight of law enforcement. Residents can file complaints against the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department and D.C. Housing Authority Office of Public Safety within 90 days of an incident. Since OPC opened, it has received approximately 15,830 total contacts with potential complainants and has handled 6,968 formal complaints.
I submitted my complaint to OPC via the online form. A few weeks later, I was interviewed by an OPC investigator. My case was then referred to mediation. In mediation, the mediator guides you and the officer through a dialogue about the incident that led to the complaint with the goal of reaching a common understanding. My mediation went surprisingly well. The officer was very cordial. He provided an extensive history of his background and thought process for the stop. He said hindsight is 20/20 and described what he would have done differently. He was clearly briefed and his statements seemed a bit rehearsed, but I think he was genuinely concerned and empathetic about my frustrations as an African American woman in America. The officer’s body worn camera footage did not capture the alleged failure to signal so it was essentially his word against mine. In the end, I agreed to resolve the complaint. It was a transformative learning experience. I was able to hear directly from the officer about his perspective of the incident and he was able to identify what he could have done differently, hopefully leading him to make better choices in the future.
I strongly encourage all residents to take advantage of the services OPC has to offer. While it can be an extensive process, the results are invaluable. You will feel empowered and motivated to help others fight for their rights. We must come together and join forces to hold our government accountable to its citizens. Our collective action will effectuate movement towards a more fair and balanced justice system.
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Melanie Bates is an attorney based in Washington, D.C. She has a passion for criminal justice reform and believes that poverty, lack of education, and other social issues should not feed the pipeline to prison. Through consistent advocacy, she desires to alleviate the factors that force many people to become a part of the criminal justice system. The views expressed here are her own.