Former Top Cop Tells Of Being Racially Profiled
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
We're going to turn now to a story we reported on yesterday, the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. You may remember that professor Gates, one of the country's best-known scholars and a recognized authority on African and African-American history, was taken into police custody last week for alleged disorderly conduct at his own home.
He'd arrived from a trip abroad, had trouble opening his door. That prompted a 911 call from a neighbor who suspected burglary. Words were exchanged between Gates, who is black, and the white responding officer, and Gates was arrested. The charges against him have been dropped, but professor Gates is demanding an apology.
Now, yesterday, throughout the day we heard from a number of scholars, mainly African-American, who were outraged by the treatment of professor Gates. Today we thought a police perspective on this incident would be helpful, so we've called on a man who has literally been on both sides of an incident like this.
Joining us now is Miami Gardens city councilmember and former Miami-Dade police Major Aaron Campbell. In 1997, he was at the center of a highly publicized confrontation with a police officer from another department. Major Campbell -then-Major Campbell was detained for resisting arrest on a traffic stop, and he accused the officers who arrested him, both of whom were white, of disrespectful and racist treatment. The case ended in his conviction for resisting arrest without violence because he ran when one of the officers sprayed him with pepper spray. And city councilmember Aaron Campbell is with us now. Thank you for joining us.
Councilman AARON CAMPBELL (Miami Gardens, Florida): Glad I could join with you.
MARTIN: Now, and I covered this case, as you might remember, back in 1997. And I remember that it was captured on police cruiser tape, which is one of the reasons I think it got so much attention, is that one could see the entire exchange. The initial stop was a failure to signal a lane change. Do I - am I remembering that correctly?
Councilman CAMPBELL: That was the original allegation.
MARTIN: You got out of the car. You did show your ID but in your recollection, what set it off? What turned it into a confrontation, in your recollection?
Councilman CAMPBELL: As best as I can remember now - it's been almost 12, 14 years - but I think what really set it off is the fact that I didn't behave in a subservient or submissive sort of a demeanor. And because I was upset about what was happening to me, I think that caused the problem - caused it to escalate.
MARTIN: What do you think - was there something in particular that the officer said to you that pushed your buttons? My recollection was that when you showed him your ID, you both showed him your driver's license and your police ID, he said, well, that's nice. Was it something in the way he said or what he said to you that pushed your buttons?
Councilman CAMPBELL: In addition to the fact that he says, that's nice, which was sort of condescending, but the fact that he said he was going to write me a citation in spite of the fact that I was - you know, that I hadn't committed a violation.
MARTIN: When you say you hadn't committed a violation, what do you mean? You're saying that there was no - he had no statutory authority to pull you over?
Councilman CAMPBELL: Correct.
MARTIN: And how did you know that?
Councilman CAMPBELL: Because I was a police officer. I had not committed any traffic violation. I made a lane change after he came up behind me, and I made a proper lane change in order to stop because he had his lights flashing. So that's the reason why I felt that I had not committed any violation.
MARTIN: One of the reasons I think that your case attracted so much attention is because you were such a senior member of the department. You'd been, as I recall, serving for almost three decades at that time, and a major, as I mentioned. And some people would say well, gee, of all people, you should have known how to keep your cool. You would have been on the other side of that stop yourself many, many times. Do you think that you can help people understand how - why one would react the way you did - or the way professor Gates did, for that matter?
Councilman CAMPBELL: Certainly. You - in order to really appreciate my reaction and the way that I conducted myself, you would have to be an African-American male in this country. You know, there's no other way that I can explain it. When you're doing all the things that you're supposed to do, and you're not violating any rights, and then you're being unlawfully stopped and challenged on a frequent basis, it's just upsetting.
MARTIN: And from the other perspective, of course, needless to say this has been a big issue on the blogs and the message boards and so forth. And there are a number of other people writing in to say, well, yes, but the police officers have a job to do. They've got the badge, they've got the gun, they've got the power. The only wise course of action is to just be as respectful as possible and try to get on your way. What do you say to that, particularly as a person who's been on the other side? You were the guy with the badge and the gun and the power.
Councilman CAMPBELL: The difference is that in my entire career, what I made a conscious decision to do is not to take the law personal. People, when they get stopped by the police for whatever reasons or whatever they have experienced in the past, they come with certain attitudes and understandings of the law.
So you just don't take it personal. My recommendation to any officer is that people get upset. They don't want to be stopped when they feel like they're doing something lawful, and they're law-abiding citizens. So if they get upset, you know, you just try to, you know, reduce the tension and move on.
MARTIN: We've had so many of these conversations over the years - Rodney King, Sean Bell - involving these interactions between police officers and people of color, particularly men of color. And I just wanted to ask, based on your experience, is there something that would stop this? Is there something that would change the dynamic here so that we don't keep having these conversations, which are bruising, obviously, for both sides. Obviously, people have opinions about who's paying the greater price for these confrontations, but what's your take on that? What would stop this?
Councilman CAMPBELL: I don't think that there's - as long as you have differences in people, you have different races, different ethnicities, I honestly don't think that there's anything could be done about it because, you know, it doesn't affect - until it affects the people who look like the ones who are conducting these abusive actions, nothing is going to change. You know, if the things like this that are happening to African-American males, if those very same things were happening to white males, I guarantee you there would be an effort to change it or do something about it.
MARTIN: And finally, can I ask, how are you doing now?
Councilman CAMPBELL: Oh, I'm doing fine. You know, we have a new city we just developed six years ago. I became one of the first councilpersons, and you know, we are doing some progressive things.
MARTIN: Aaron Campbell is a city councilman, representing the city of Miami Gardens, serving in the city of Miami Gardens. He's a former Miami-Dade police major, and he was kind enough to join us from the studios of WLRN in Miami. Major, City Councilmember, as it were, thank you so much for joining us.
Councilman CAMPBELL: Glad I was able to join you.