The racial frisk: profiling a concern in Utah


Asher Koles has a thin black mustache, a dark-olive complexion, and a slim build. He often drives his old Subaru Outback across long, open roads to go fishing and camping. His adventures take him to quiet and beautiful lands.

But sometimes, Koles’ adventures on the road are interrupted by the flashing lights and sirens of police cars.

Koles, a 24-year-old Salt Lake City native, said he is one of many people who are profiled by law enforcement for no reason other than the way they look. His most recent experience occurred last summer when he was driving back to Salt Lake City from a two-month trip in the Pacific Northwest.

“Cars were speeding all around me. But I was the one who got pulled over,” Koles said. “The cop walked up, stuck his head in, and started sniffing around. I said, ‘Do you smell something?’ And he wouldn’t leave me alone until I let him search my car,” Koles said.

But the officer found nothing.

“That experience pretty much sealed the deal for my eternal distrust of police officers,” Koles said. “He pulled me over for a bogus reason because my car looked dirty, I looked dirty, and I was an easy target.”

Magaly McMannis, a legal immigrant from Mexico, said she has been profiled countless times as well. A police officer once issued her a traffic ticket that indicated she was of Indian descent, McMannis said.

“I am not Indian,” Mcmannis said. “And even if I was, I don’t know why that is relevant.”

Amid immigration debates and post-9/11 distrust, racial and ethnic profiling of motorists has become a growing concern in the United States.

The American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, has dedicated an entire sector of programming to combat issues associated with racial and ethnic profiling, a practice that disproportionally targets people for investigation and enforcement based solely on skin color or ethnic background.

“[There are] clear and significant racial disparities in the way in which motorists are treated once they have been stopped by law enforcement”, said a national report released by the ACLU in 2007.

The report found that blacks and Latinos are three times more likely to be searched by a police officer once they are pulled over. Blacks are twice as likely to be arrested and four times as likely to be threatened by, or to be victims of the use of force by a police officer.

“While the Department of Justice says that the higher rate of searches of blacks and Hispanics is not necessarily the result of racial bias, it begs a critical question: why are blacks and Hispanics subject to searches disproportionately?” said Dennis Parker, the director for ACLU’s national Racial Justice Project. “It’s a question that needs to be answered.”

In the last seven years, the federal government has transferred substantial responsibility for the enforcement of civil immigration laws to the state and local level, according to a national ACLU report in 2009.

Perhaps the most infamous among recent state laws to address immigration is the 287 (g) program, which allows designated officers in various state and local agencies to perform immigration law enforcement functions that would have otherwise been performed by federal government officials.

The 2009 ACLU report said that the program has been criticized for allowing and encouraging the illegal racial and ethnic profiling and harassment of both immigrants and U.S. citizens.

But Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank said he will not tolerate racial and ethnic profiling in his police department.

In the 2010 U.S. Census, 22.5 percent of the population in Salt Lake City was documented as Latino and that number was nearly 31 percent in the school system, Burbank said.

“To alienate one-third of the population in Salt Lake City is ridiculous,” Burbank said. “We need the interaction and involvement of everybody.”

Burbank said he is setting the tone for his team of officers so that this problem does not take hold in his department.

“I am a very effective arm of oppression,” Burbank said. “Profiling is wrong. It is my responsibility to not allow this to happen.”

But McMannis said she has simply learned to accept the way she is perceived by certain people in the community.

“People do look at me and it does feel weird,” McMannis said. “But I have learned to not care because it is what it is, I am who I am. My dream as a girl was to live the United States, and my dream came true. That’s what is important.”

Standing against Utah’s conservativism, a few fight against HB 497


In 2011, the Utah Legislature passed a controversial bill pertaining to illegal immigration throughout the state.  In subsequent months, outcry from the Latino community and leaders around Salt Lake City, led to a court challenge against House Bill 497.

HB 497, would allow police officers to check the immigration status of most individuals they encounter, making it necessary for those of Latino background to carry their documents with them wherever they go.

And in May 2011, just after Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed HB 497, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the state of Utah. That action suspended the bill, and Judge Clark Waddoups of U.S. District Court for the District of Utah, recently postponed the case, citing that he will wait until the U.S. Supreme Court decides on a similar bill from Arizona.

While the courts will ultimately decide the fate of HB 497, Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank and other opponents have urged the courts to consider the problems a bill of this nature could create for officers.

“I should not take into account who [citizens] they are, what language they speak, the color of their skin, where they might be from, and all those other things.” Burbank said.  “We all have these biases built into us. But does that hold true? Absolutely not.  And if officers start using that [biases] as a basis to make enforcement decisions, that is wrong.”

Burbank also let his thoughts be known in a Feb. 16th op-ed column in The Salt Lake Tribune, the day before Waddoups moved to suspend the bill.  Headlined “ ‘Papers-please’ law would harm all Utahns,” Burbank pleaded for the judicial system to block HB 497.

As Burbank—2011 recipient of the Tribune’s “Person on the Year” honor, spoke the same day his column was printed, he reiterated the overriding sentiments toward  the issue. And more specifically, he addressed the influence HB 497 would have on the growing Latino community in the state of Utah.

“In Salt Lake City, last year’s census had 22.5 percent of the population being documented as being Hispanic or Latino,” Burbank said. “The school census, when you look at the enrolled children in school, that number is about 31 percent of the population.  And to alienate one-third of the population is ridiculous.”

Passing by 59-15 in the Utah House and 22-5 in the Utah Senate it was clear that lawmakers overwhelmingly supported HB 497. However– like Burbank–not all Utah leaders were on board with the controversial bill.  Rep. David Litvack D-Salt Lake City, agrees that HB 497 would only create unnecessary issues for police officers and citizens alike.

“I think it does a disservice to the entire community,” Litvack said. “You can’t resolve immigration issues through enforcement only, it’s misleading.  And as far as law enforcement, as well as the immigrant community, it puts them in a very compromising position. Law enforcement relies on a good relationship with the entire community, including the undocumented community.”

Being one of the 15 House opponents to the bill last legislative session, Litvack adamantly defended his decision to vote against a bill that many supported.

“My big concern for witnesses of crime, is how willing they will be cooperate, to speak with law enforcement if their big fear is that they’re going to be arrested or deported,” Litvack said.

And while HB 497 has clearly been met with resistance from some, in the end, the law must really be about guaranteeing the safety and rights for all those who live in the state of Utah, Burbank wrote in his guest column.

“In order to perform our job effectively, all people – including those who lack authorization to be in this country – should feel confident approaching police officers and coming forward as victims of or witnesses to crime without fear this interaction may lead to an investigation of their immigration status.”

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