Columbia police, community members openly discuss racial profiling

Wednesday, July 21, 2010 | 11:11 p.m. CDT; updated 2:13 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 22, 2010
David Harris, a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, gives a presentation on racial profiling in police departments on Wednesday at the Activity and Recreation Center. The panelists behind Harris took part in a question-and-answer session at the conclusion of Harris' talk to encourage community discussion on the subject.

COLUMBIA — The police department, a Pittsburgh professor and community members tackled a sticky issue during a discussion panel Wednesday night: Race.

The Missouri Association for Social Welfare, among other organizations, decided to host the panel at the ARC after realizing racially biased policing was a big issue in Missouri and nobody has effectively worked together to combat it, Don Love, the association's Human Rights Task Force chairman said.

The association got a grant through the Sparkplug Foundation, a New York-based group that gives grants for new projects related to human rights.

David Harris, a law professor from the University of Pittsburgh presented the keynote speech at the panel, as well as answered questions. 

Harris, a nationally-recognized expert on the topic, has written two books about racial profiling and policing. He has also trained police departments to recognize and combat their racial biases.

Love said the association covered the cost of Harris' expenses.

Panel members included Columbia Police Department Chief Ken Burton, Columbia NAACP President Mary Ratliff — who served as moderator — Mid-Missouri American Civil Liberties Union representative Dan Viets, Noor Azizan-Gardner from the MU Chancellor's Diversity Initiative and Rashed Nizam from the Central Missouri Islam Center. 

At the beginning of his speech, Harris described what he called the waves of profiling.

Harris said he wanted to make people aware of the issue, even though it might make many uncomfortable.

"I want to stress this is not about what's politically correct," Harris said.

To illustrate the first wave, which was pre-Sept. 11, he showed the cover of one his books, which was a picture of a black man looking in flashing police lights in his car's sideview mirror as he is pulled over.

The second wave of profiling, which was post Sept. 11, targeted Arabs, while the third wave of profiling, currently happening in Arizona, is targeting immigrants.

Harris stressed recognizing and discussing personal biases as a way to combat racial profiling.

During his speech, Harris also stressed the importance of creating a working relationship between the police and the community.

"When we talk about crime and we talk about community safety, people must agree on this, people must work with the police," Harris said. "The police must work with people."

At the conclusion of Harris' speech, members of the panel had a chance to comment.

Azizan-Gardner said people don't discuss their biases because they fear being labeled a racist. She said community members need a "safe space to dialogue" about their biases.

Burton agreed.

"Let's talk openly about what our biases are," he said.

Jen Apoian contributed to this report

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