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Profiling panel targets police

Talks, training, hiring touted to ease racial woes

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Pull over a Latino, search his car, and you're likely to find illicit drugs. Nab those Asian teenagers — they're gang members. And you'd better pull that dark-skinned man out of line again and have him show all the contents of his suitcase before he boards the plane.

Those are examples of racial profiling, the kind that still plagues Utah and the nation, a panel of civil-rights advocates said Friday. During the "Color of Justice: The New Face of Racial Profiling" symposium at the University of Utah College of Law, the panelists grappled with how to hold police accountable for their treatment of minorities.

Salt Lake lawyer Yvette Diaz spoke of a Mexican American woman who called police after she was beaten by her boyfriend. The officers told her, "This is normal in Mexican culture" — an inaccurate belief — "and in her mind, they weren't helping her because she was Mexican," Diaz said.

Such profiling is widespread, she added. Yet it is not directly experienced by most Americans, because most Americans are white. "Unless you've lived it or someone you love has lived it, it's very difficult to understand."

Said U. law professor Robert Flores, "Racial profiling tells people: 'You don't belong. You will not be treated equally' . . . and parents have to teach their children that the police are not your friends. They seek to do you harm solely because of your race."

As Americans strive for peace in their cities and neighborhoods, "we have to have an involved citizenry," he added. "We can't leave anyone out." Yet profiling does just that.

"In Utah we have some trouble with the concept of 'other,' " said Dani Eyer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. "I'm not saying people in Utah are not well-meaning. It's just that we don't have a lot of practice."

Utahns can practice, several panelists said, by facing each other to talk.

In Washington County, members of the Latino community meet quarterly with law enforcement. The respectful dialogue between them hasn't solved everything, but it's a beginning, Diaz said. "People aren't as angry as they were before. . . . If you can at least start somewhere, that can be replicated elsewhere" in the state.

Judge Shauna Graves-Robertson got a burst of applause after she said, "One reason we remain apart in this country is we don't talk to each other." Profiling is just a new name for discriminatory behavior by authorities, she added.

"What tore this country apart, ever since it became a country, was the issue of race. Same story, different day," she said.

Large-scale profiling is going on now, said Floyd Mori of the Japanese American Citizens League. "Thousands of Arab Americans have been denied due process. Their behavior," though it indicated no disloyalty to the United States, "was ignored and they have been incarcerated." The current practice, he said, is dangerously reminiscent of the detention of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.

Mori added that when he looks at Utah's police forces, he sees little color. What is being done to hire minorities, he asked Utah Public Safety Commissioner Robert Flowers.

"A lot is being done, frankly," to encourage minority applicants, Flowers replied. "We've tried every trick in the book," to recruit people of color, "and we have not been successful." Salt Lake Police Capt. Scott Atkinson said the same thing: The force has "several" Latinos and Pacific Islanders who encourage others to apply. But few have.

"You're a fool not to look at the statistics and see there is an issue" with racial profiling, Flowers said finally. But he defended his officers, saying they're not necessarily malicious, just in need of better tracking and training. "Are police officers racists?" He shrugged, as if to say he doubts that. "Is it bad policy, bad accountability, bad training? Absolutely."

E-mail: durbani@desnews.com