Emory Professor Accuses Decatur PD of Racial Profiling

I came across this article a few days back, but at the time we were knee-deep in our own battle over race, and a body can only tolerate so much animosity on his site at a time.

Over on the site New Black Man, Emory Associate Professor of English and African American Studies, Lawrence Jackson, recounts an incident with Decatur police in June reminiscent of the Henry Gates arrest, when he was stopped along Clairemont Road for bicycling after dark without a headlamp.

Much can and – I’m sure – will be said about this in-depth account, but one thing cannot be argued; Jackson’s account is honest.  He’s very upfront with a series of past interactions with police that have forever altered his perception of officers.  He’s also honest in describing his “fury” once police pulled him over.  He could have skimmed over these factors, but he didn’t.

I don’t have the answer for this one.  I wasn’t there.  But I can predict how the conversation will go.  Some will argue that he broke the law and that his reaction to police is unacceptable.  Others will argue that this is just one more case of racial profiling, where a black man received a ticket where a white man never would.

I would just like to remind everyone that every man and woman is shaped by their own experiences.  Be it the cop in the car, the professor on the bike, or the anonymous commenter with a point to get across.  Facts are one thing, “truth” is perceived.

With that in mind, I ask everyone upfront to respect both each other and the conversation.

38 thoughts on “Emory Professor Accuses Decatur PD of Racial Profiling”

  1. FURY when police pull you over? Hmmmm….confusion maybe, aggravation possibly, but FURY?

    Chip, anyone? Before reading I will say that on the surface the title: New BLACK man, and the dashiki worn in the photo (sp) are two tipoffs that this person is pretty much self defining who he is from the get go.

    Gosh, I hope that is not a rude comment…I don’t mean it to be.

  2. Ok, I read the blog. Seems like a police overreaction to me. So I retract the chip thing.
    And the fury thing. I am furious reading it! Sorry this happened to you Professor Jackson.

  3. I’m sorry Mr. Jackson had the experience that he did.

    My personal experience with Code 40-6-296 goes beyond City of Decatur. As a cyclist in the 1990’s, I would ride from Decatur to Stone Mtn., circle the mtn. a few times, and return back to Decatur. Personally, I’ve been stopped by Stone Mtn. Park Police, DeKalb County Police, and CoD Police for that specific violation. Yes, I had a hard head and would start my ride, either before sunrise, or sometimes let my ride go take longer and the sun would set.

    The most aggressive officer I encountered was a Stone Mtn. Park Police office who had to prove a point. I was circling the mtn. at a time when the sky was light, but the sun had not “broken the horizon” (his words). I was given a “talking to” and a nice piece of paper with bicycle laws.

    But the most important lesson I learned in all my years of cycling….WEAR A FREAKIN’ HELMET! My helmet has saved my life on two occassions, both in broad day light.

    Ok….back to Mr. Jackson’s main issue…carry on.

  4. Hmmmmm. I understand the lens through which Prof. Jackson’s perspective has been shaped. I also respect the fact that Professor Jackson was angry about being pulled over, but here are some salient facts: it was nearly 11:00 at night, his bike had no lights on it, and there is actually an ordinance prohibiting riding at night sans lights; by his own admission, Jackson was furious at having been pulled over, and promptly let the police know it by walking toward them and asking them, essentially, if they had nothing better to do than pull him over. Already, he’s got 3 legitimate strikes against him: he was actually violating an ordinance; he approached the police instead of waiting for them to approach him (something every black man I know understands is a mistake– heck, for that matter, something EVERY man I know understands is a mistake); and he proceeded to antagonize them by challenging their right to pull him over. I’m not saying that his feelings of being profiled aren’t legitimate, I’m saying that he gave them cannon fodder to shoot him with, when they otherwise might have just let him off with a warning. To my mind, this situation is distinguishable from Dr. Gates’ situation in these major respects: one, Prof. Jackson wasn’t in his own home, where one’s rights not to be subject to unreasonable search and seizure are arguably more sacrosanct than when one is on the street or outside the curtilage of his own home; and two, once it was clear that there was no reason for the the officer who came to Dr. Gates’ house to be there, he should have simply left, instead of remaining behind to continue questioning the professor, thereby needlessly provoking an escalation of the situation. In this instance, I am squarely on Dr. Gates’ side, because if a citizen can’t express anger about someone unlawfully being on his premises– even the police– without being arrested for it, then that’s a violation of the 1st Amendment. I understand that the 1st Amendment does not permit unfettered free speech (i.e., you can’t yell “fire” in a theater), but the last time I checked, merely being angry and demanding someone’s name & badge number isn’t a threat to their physical or mental health.

    While both Prof. Jackson and Dr. Gates both have the 1st Amendment right not to be arrested simply for being angry & giving voice to that anger, Prof. Jackson’s rights are abridged when the police could reasonably surmise that his actions, in light of being pulled over for actually breaking a law, could be perceived as threatening. Dr. Gates was not in that same situation, and indeed, had the bogus charges against him dismissed because he WASN’T breaking the law when he expressed his anger. Am I saying that Prof. Jackson’s anger is unreasonable, or that he’s incorrect that he was being profiled? No, because those are judgment calls that I cannot make for someone else– because I don’t know whether the police would’ve allowed a white man to cruise by them with no lights on his bike, and because I don’t know whether they would’ve ticketed a white man in the same situation who reacted the very same way. Nor, I submit, does Prof. Jackson– but he practically guaranteed he’d get a ticket by his actions. It’s one thing to believe you’re being treated unjustly, it’s quite another to affirmatively do something to ensure that your worst fears will come true.

    1. Agreed, and, I have to say, exactly what is the story here? He wasn’t arrested, despite approaching the police to “give them a piece of his mind.” It appears he was detained just long enough to be issued a citation. He wasn’t cuffed, humiliated, etc.

      I agree with him that being stopped for this minor infraction is a waste of everyone’s time. But there is nothing in the story to suggest this was racially motivated. The ordinance may be unnecessary, but it is an ordinace, and he was quite clearly in violation. Getting stopped for doing 45 in a 35 zone is also a waste of everyone’s time, but it happens to white people every day.

      Also, it’s very unwise to approach police, as Mr. Jackson claims he did. First, you never know why they are stopping you. Second, they are quite appropriately trained to assume the worst about everyone they stop. They can’t know in advance that Mr. Jackson in an Emory prof who poses no danger to them.

  5. An African American male colleague of mine (professor) was involved in an auto accident on W. Peachtree. He was not at fault. He waited in his car until the police arrived. When they did, he explained the situation. He ended up face down on the concrete following an accident that he did not cause. He is quiet, soft-spoken, and also happens to be brilliant. Racial profiling is alive. It feeds on past anger and it promotes additional anger.

    That said, being a police officer is an incredibly tough and stressful job. I wouldn’t want to have to make the snap decisions they make each day.

  6. Is it possible to get the police department’s view of what happened with Professor Jackson?

  7. It’s news to me you’re required to wear a headlamp while biking after dark. I didn’t even know you were required to have a light on your bike. Good -idea- but an ordinance? Didn’t know that and have biked around at night on numerous occasions. I need to look up the law and get with it, I guess!

    Off course, the likelihood of police pulling over a white lady and telling her the law or asking questions is a lot lower than usualy is for a black man.

  8. I have watched with interest the comments on this blog about Mr. Jackson’s account of his incident with Decatur Police officers. First I would like to thank the moderator for the comments about the life experiences of individuals and how that affects their perceptions. I often hear people offering criticisms of the actions of police officers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc. Many times these criticisms are justified and the people being criticized have made judgment errors or have purposely done wrong. These professionals listed above each occupy a position of trust in society and thus are rightly held to a higher standard. However, many times the criticisms of these individuals result from misunderstandings. Also, many times only one side of a story is heard, because of privacy rules that govern certain professions. Having stated the above, I feel the citizens of Decatur have a right to know about the actions of their public servants, so I will relate the following information that was given to me by the officers involved:

    On the night of the incident, two officers were completing an assignment on Clairemont Avenue. Both of these officers were in one patrol vehicle because one was a field training officer and the other an officer in training. The second police vehicle was the supervisor who had come to the scene to observe. Mr. Jackson passed the police vehicles on his bicycle. The officers noticed Mr. Jackson was riding his bicycle in the roadway and did not have a light on his bicycle which is required by Georgia law. The officers attempted to stop Mr. Jackson and he ignored their signals. The officers continued to follow Mr. Jackson and he finally stopped and got off his bicycle. Mr. Jackson then picked his bicycle up and held it against his chest as he approached the officers. The officers stated Mr. Jackson appeared angry and hostile and they had to tell him several times to put the bicycle down. Neither officer pulled their weapon and no force was ever used. The officers stated Mr. Jackson accused them of racial profiling and would not accept their explanations for the stop. Although this should not matter, the race of both officers is African-American. The officers issued Mr. Jackson a citation and he left.

    A couple of weeks after the incident Mr. Jackson sent a letter to the City of Decatur, which was very similar to the internet posting. I contacted Mr. Jackson. During that telephone conversation, Mr. Jackson stated he did not wish to file a formal complaint. Mr. Jackson stated the officers never used rude or insulting language towards him and that his only complaint was he felt he had been stopped solely because of his race. Mr. Jackson stated he would be collecting more information about “bicycling while black” in the context of academic research.

    It was my finding in this incident the officers did not violate any department policy, city ordinance, state law, or federal statute. There is no evidence the officers conducted themselves in an unprofessional manner. I know there will be people who disagree with my findings, but I truly believe these officers were trying to fulfill their duties and conducted themselves in a proper and professional manner.

    J. Keith Lee
    Deputy Police Chief
    City of Decatur Police Department
    (678) 553-6620
    [email protected]

    1. Deputy Chief Lee:

      As you said, there may be people who disagree with your findings, but I’m not one of them. I especially appreciate your post here, given that you didn’t have to address this matter in a public forum at all.

      With respect and appreciation, I thank you.

    2. Thank you Deputy Chief Lee for taking the time to give another side to this story. The more we hear, the better, in terms of getting a clearer picture of what occurred.

    3. Thank you, Deputy Chief Lee…

      When I first read this person’s complaint it seemed overly reliant on emotive language and florid prose. It was also very short on actual facts that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that race had anything to do with this.

      It’s good to see the PD’s response shows that the officers acted reasonably — and for this person’s own safety.

  9. A black man on a bicycle at night with no lights? If the police truly wanted to do him harm, they would encourage his riding while being invisible. Then the EMS could scrape him off the pavement…

  10. I was just pulled over yesterday for an improper turn. I am not a minority, but I am female. They must be profiling women too.

    Time to go burn a bra!

    1. LOL! I suddenly had a mental image of a crowd of indignant females hoisting their bras on poles, setting them afire, then marching to & fro in front of the DPD!!!

      1. And MY mental image includes the indignant females taking off their shirts before removing their bras.

        Oh man, I’m gonna pay for that remark.

        1. You naughty boy – I bet you were one of those kids who looked through National Geographic Magazine for a thrill. 😉

          Sound like a Benny Hill scene to me.

  11. It sounds like Jackson overreacted, plain and simple, and can’t accept that the police have duty to enforce all the laws – even the “minor” ones. The law requiring lights on bicycles at night is no-brainer, and I don’t think the police should be criticized for enforcing it.

  12. Man I bet our friends at Bicycle South are doing a brisk business in bicycle lights this week!

  13. [edited: yes, it is a personal attack] Approaching police to give them a piece of your mind is just dumb. Is there a pattern here, “I’m a professor, so I’m used to having people kiss my a** and therefore the rules don’t apply to me?” I’m white and got drawn on once for pulling up behind the cop when I was pulled over (I was wearing a suit and driving a volvo). Why? Because the guy told me a state trooper had been killed the previous week and it’s a tactically dangerous position for the cop to have the subject behind him. Cops deal with crazy stuff every day. They shouldn’t have to defend themselves against some arrogant Emory professor riding around town [edited: no name calling] with no lights.

  14. It’s interesting that the feedback from the two officers specifically mentions that the Professor was riding on the road. I’ve been sidetracked a few times whilst out on my bike, and ended up unexpectedly having to ride home in the dark (without lights). Although I’m going hazard a guess that this is also a violation, I’ve ended up riding on the sidewalk, as it just seems a lot wiser.

    On the topic at hand, I couldn’t put it better than CubaLibre already did in her first post. Not only is it a violation to ride on the road without lights, but it’s also pretty dumb. I can maybe understand why the Professor might be unclear as to the intentions of a patrol car with sirens blaring (that sounds a bit overkill, and the officer might have been better shouting out the window for the guy to pull over).

    Anyway, bottom line is that it doesn’t sound as if the Prof. handled himself very sensibly. Get all confrontational with a police officer (in fact, anyone), and the odds of things not going well jump way up!

  15. Is the statistic that someone will be more likely to speed on the interstate than the 200ft. dead end cul-de-sac a reason for police to put radar guns there more often? Are past statistics invalid as a means to predicting probability?

  16. I am really glad this diary was posted. As a white man, I really appreciate hearing about the experience of black men (and boys) with police. We can all learn.

  17. My daughter – young, white – was in an accident where an older Black woman pulled out of a private drive and ran into the side of her car. The Black DeKalb County Police officer, who got there after the vehicles were moved, ticketed my daughter in the accident. Fortunately, my daughter refused to accept that and the judge threw it out when it came to court. I guess I could assume that the officer discriminated against my daughter because she was young and/or white, but I prefer to think he was just a human who made an error. It happens.

  18. Many of y’all are aware that I own Bicycle South so I do know a good bit about bicycle lights and riding at night. I probably ride back and forth on Clairemont from near downtown Decatur to the store over 300 days a year and routinely use my bicycle as my primary mode of transportation. I ride to most meetings as well (day & night) and more than half the year it is dark when I leave the store in the evening. I ride mostly on the road, but will use the Clairemont sidewalks at times if the traffic seems overly aggressive (usually around rush hour); however I’m usually on the road later than that as the store doesn’t close until 7 PM. I have a very bright front and rear light, plenty of reflective gear, and always wear my helmet.

    There are a lot more cyclists on the road these days and Decatur is actively working to enhance cycling opportunities. That’s the good side; the bad side is some of the cyclist behavior out there. I see more than a few people riding in poor visibility with dark clothes, no lights, no reflectors, etc. These folks do not realize how difficult it is for a driver to see them when they’re cycling like that. They’re an accident waiting to happen. And it is Georgia law to have a front and rear light for dusk and night time riding – visible for at least 300 feet. If you’re a cyclist in an accident at night & you’re without lights, you haven’t got a prayer of winning the case or collecting any insurance – forget about it!

    So I’m glad the Decatur police stopped the Professor. I hope they stop anyone they see riding at night without lights. Cyclists have the right to use the road, but they also have the obligation to follow the law.

    1. I see more than a few people riding in poor visibility with dark clothes, no lights, no reflectors, etc. These folks do not realize how difficult it is for a driver to see them when they’re cycling like that. They’re an accident waiting to happen.

      True, a driver is less likely to spot a pedestrian or someone riding a bike if these persons aren’t wearing the necessary reflectors and such. What about other bicyclists? How often do you see bicyclists almost ride into each other?

  19. As someone who does a lot of biking, I can tell you that getting stopped for riding without lights when it’s dark out is pretty common around ATL. This is one issue the police are pretty serious about, and for good reason.

  20. I understand that someone who has experienced racist discrimination in the past might tend to view all sorts of encounters with lenses tinted by that prejudice. It’s also obvious that sometimes these subsequent encounters have nothing to do with race, but there will always be that sneaking suspicion on the part of the aggrieved that race mattered. And THEN there are cases where the sneaking suspicion is turned into an outright spurious allegation, often when the perceived slight is nothing more than the normal course of human dealings.

    All that is to preface my comment that I have no earthly idea how the police around here show such restraint in the face of such allegations against them. They deal with this everyday and do an incredible job of defusing most situations. We only hear the stories of cops gone wrong (and make no mistake, there are some huge examples out there for the press and public to latch onto), but from my personal experience with the Decatur, DeKalb, Atlanta and other metro area police departments, the great majority are decent, hard working guys who really do just want to get it right.

    Deputy Chief Lee’s thoughtful and reasoned comments are to be commended. He didn’t have to come on here and say anything at all, but the fact that he did is evidence of the true nature of our local law enforcement officers. Those of us in Decatur should be especially grateful when we compare this leadership to the apparent lack of it in City of Atlanta. And be assured, it reflects the attitude of 98% of those uniformed officers that I encounter everyday in my work.

  21. In Amsterdam and some progressive American cities, the Police stop cyclists riding without a headlamp… to give them one. And they will help you install it right on the spot. Is it about public safety or intimidation?

    1. I LOVE this idea, mostly because I’ve had a whole series of bicycle lights and water bottle cages and baskets and panniers that have had short lives because I’m so unhandy and, without making any husband slurs, so is everyone else in our family. I’m always willing to pay to have the bike shop install the stuff but the staff always reassure me that anyone can do it. (I think they’re actually too busy and too young to realize not everyone is born with an Allen wrench in their mouth).

      I’d love an analysis to see what is cheaper in the long run–giving out and installling safety equipment vs. the admin and court costs of tickets, never mind the medical costs/productivity lost for those never caught by police but injured.

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