Institutional Bias and Power

A short time ago, Doug Glanville published a piece about being profiled in his own driveway in Hartford. I read it, was annoyed on his behalf, and went on with my life. A short time later, the police chief of West Hartford published an Op Ed piece claiming that Doug Glanville was not profiled and that the police officer in question did everything properly. I read it, was infuriated, and now I can’t stop thinking about it.

The facts, as far as I can tell, are that someone tried to make some money by shoveling driveways in a West Hartford neighborhood. One of the people solicited by this person called the police. The description of the person was black, male, wearing a brown jacket, and carrying a shovel. The police officer took that description across a city line into Hartford and found a black male, wearing a brown jacket, and carrying a shovel. The officer asked the black male a question, returned to his car and left.

According to Mr. Glanville, the question was accusatory. According to the Police, the question was simply an attempt to gather information about a complaint. I wasn’t there, so I have no way of knowing, but neither Mr. Glanville nor the Police suggested that the officer explained why he was asking the question, thanked Mr. Glanville for his time, or apologized for the trouble. In and of itself, that’s a bit rude, but it’s not the reason for my outrage.

There are many reasons for my outrage. The first is the least valid and that’s the fact that Mr. Glanville’s description is completely consistent with my own experiences with the WHPD. I know that’s anecdotal evidence, confirmation bias, etc., but in the interest of honesty, I have to mention it.

The second reason is the ordinance banning door to door solicitation itself. I’m no lawyer, but doesn’t that pose a problem for all the town’s girl scouts? It seems a rather obvious case of classism. If you’re in West Hartford, you shouldn’t need to go door to door looking for work. And you shouldn’t have to be bothered saying, “No thanks,” to anyone. It just helps West Hartford’s reputation as the snobbiest town around.

The third reason is the fact that it happened in Hartford. It was a complaint made in West Hartford. I can understand crossing into a new jurisdiction if an assault or murder happened, but door to door solicitation? That seems a bit overzealous. The WHPD says that the man was aggressive, but when he was found, no arrest was made. That seems odd, given that the offense supposedly justified crossing city lines. The police chief also mentioned that the suspect had a criminal record, but they couldn’t have known that before finding him. Otherwise, they would have had a much more accurate description and a name to work with.

The fourth reason is the description that the officer was using: a black man, wearing a brown jacket, and carrying a shovel. Seeing as it had snowed that morning, the description fit hundreds, if not thousands, of people in Hartford at that time. If the description had been exactly the same, but white instead of black, would the officer have approached one of Mr. Glanville’s neighbors?

Finally, the fifth reason is where my biggest beef comes from, and that’s the overall tone of the Op Ed. When the police chief started talking about all of the languages spoken in West Hartford, all I could think was, “I’m not racist, I have two black friends.” But, more importantly, the police chief seems to be missing some key information about the sociology of this country. When it comes down to the individual level, it is great to treat everyone the same. However, the second a person assumes a position of power, whether it is a supervisor at work, the chief of police, or a Supreme Court justice, treating everyone the same is no longer great. I know that sounds counter-intuitive. We’ve all been taught our whole lives that, “All men are created equal.” They may have been created that way, but once people enter society, that equality is gone. If a person is in a position of power, and fails to recognize inequality, that person is committing an injustice.

This country is racist. Because of that racism, innocent individual actions are often warped into something bad. Black people have been given myriad reasons to distrust the police. I’m not accusing the officer that spoke to Mr. Glanville of being a bigot, nor am I accusing the West Hartford police chief of being a bigot. What I am saying is that when you have a vague description of a person that has committed an unbelievably minor offense; don’t give a black man another reason to be suspicious of the police.