Congressman Claims Racial Profiling

Democratic Rep. Danny Davis says he was racially profiled when he was pulled over by Chicago police last month. Police say Davis swerved over the center line and defend the citation. But, the African-American congressman says he will challenge the $75 ticket.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, taking a bible instead of dollar bills into the strip club? One woman's ministry that reaches out to exotic dancers. That's coming up in our Faith Matters segment.

But first, we want to talk about something that almost always touches a nerve in communities of color and guarantee spirited discussion along racial lines. It's about DWB - driving while black. And the person at the center of the story is a member of Congress. Here's a short synopsis of what happened.

Just before Thanksgiving, Illinois Congressman Danny Davis was home in Chicago. He was pulled over by a uniformed Chicago police officer. Those facts are not in question. What follows, though, pits the congressman against the Chicago Police Department. Congressman Davis is charging the police with racial profiling. The authorities deny it and say the $75 ticket issued to Congressman Davis for failing to hold his lane is valid.

Illinois Congressman Danny Davis joins us now to talk about what he calls a case of racial profiling. Thanks for joining us.

DANNY DAVIS: Well, thank you. I'm indeed just delighted to be here.

MARTIN: What made you feel that you were being profiled?

DAVIS: Well, I guess, one would have to know who I am. I mean, I'm a pretty solid, law-abiding, civic-minded, Christian-minded, good guy citizen who was on my way home from a radio show that I do every Sunday evening. And I had three people in the car with me who had been on the show because they had been guests and they didn't have a car, so I was giving them a ride home.

We were the only people on the street. Just simply driving along, feeling good, because the person I had interviewed had been in prison for nine and a half years, gotten out, went through a training program - that quite frankly was named after me - got himself a job making $22 an hour and had just been offered a job for $65,000 a year. And so we were just pleasantly driving along. We look up and there is a police car behind us.

MARTIN: Did they have the siren on?

DAVIS: No. No siren. The officer got out of his car and came over and asked if I had drivers license. I indicated that I did. He then asked if I had an insurance card. I indicated that I did. I pulled it out and gave it to him. And as he was giving me my insurance card back, I just politely kind of asked him, why did you stop us? And you know, for a moment he didn't have a reason. But then he said I noticed you weaving back there. And I said, weaving? You've got to be joking - mistaken. I didn't weave. And then he said, and you were driving left of center. And I said, left of center? What is that? He said, well, you went across the yellow line. And I said, oh, you've just got to be mistaken.

MARTIN: Congressman, can I ask you this. Is it - forgive me, I don't mean to offend, but I wanted to ask you, had you had anything to drink?

DAVIS: Drink? I'd been on the radio station for two hours solid, from 10:00 to 12:00. Plus, I don't drink.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Any medication?

DAVIS: No medication. I take diabetes medicine in the morning.

MARTIN: Possible that you were distracted by the company in the car?

DAVIS: No. I mean, I've had people call me and say, they were totally shocked, you know, of people who've ridden with me and all of that, and said, oh, you know, you never speed.

MARTIN: So you're one of these guys that the rest of us don't want to be behind...

DAVIS: That's right. I mean...

MARTIN: ...because you're just toeing the line.

DAVIS: Well, I pretty much do that. It's just a matter of who I am. I mean, it's no big deal.

MARTIN: Now, how did the police react when you - or the authorities react when you took your complaints to them and expressed the idea that you thought you have been singled out?

DAVIS: Oh, the sergeant - I ended up speaking with the sergeant, who was very pleasant, and he says, well, let me call these, you know, the officers and see if they can come in and maybe we can adjudicate this, and you know, get it over. Well, they came in, and they just simply refused. And I went home. And the next day, of course, I called the Office of Professional Standards - well, they've changed the name - and shared with them, because it really was not so much about Danny Davis, congressman. It's about the fact that this happens far too often to citizens.

And every time there's an infraction, it doesn't mean that someone necessarily gets beat across the head with a billy club or somebody pulls their gun and shoot them, but it's criminal, quite frankly, the way many African-Americans feel. I stopped in a restaurant a few days afterwards, and everybody there had a story about having been stopped unjustifiably by the police at some point in time during their lifetime.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you this. You are pretty angry about this. I mean, it does seem that you're very angry. I mean, you're very temperate in your conversation with me, but...

DAVIS: It made no sense. I mean, I'm a friend of the police. I've got hundreds of friends who are police officers. I work with the police. I try to bridge the gap between police and local communities.

MARTIN: Can I interrupt just for one second?

DAVIS: Sure.

MARTIN: I wanted ask you. There've been a number of surveys done about racial profiling, both nationally and in various jurisdictions around the country. They generally come to the same conclusion, which is that African-American, Hispanic and white motorists are generally equally likely to be pulled over. But where the profiling issue comes to the fore is what happens after the stop. It says that blacks and Latinos are much more likely to be searched, handcuffed, arrested and subjected to force or to threat of it, according to a Justice Department study. It was concluded by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2005. There've been a number of other studies with very similar results.

The argument is that oftentimes people are driving too quickly for the police to know who's driving the car. And in your case this was late at night or early in the - it was, you know, in the middle of the night.

DAVIS: After midnight.

MARTIN: How could - after midnight. So would they have been able to see who was in the car?

DAVIS: Well, let me ask you a question. Have you ever been through traffic court?

MARTIN: Now, see, now you're asking my business.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: Well, I mean...

MARTIN: We're talking about you.

DAVIS: You can go - well, I'm talking about the people because I'm personally irrelevant. You go to traffic court in many locations throughout the country and you can spell justice - J-U-S-T dash U-S. Just us.

MARTIN: Just us.

DAVIS: I'm not kidding. I'm not creating anything. I really didn't need an issue. You know, somebody says, oh, election time must be coming up. Well, you know, I've been very fortunate relative to elections. I usually get about 85 percent of the vote when I run for office. And so I really didn't need an issue. But I do need to feel a sense of justice.

MARTIN: May I ask if - and I don't know that it's relevant, I don't know if you think it's relevant - but may I ask what the demographics were of the officers who pulled you over?

DAVIS: Oh, they were both white.

MARTIN: Do you think that matters?

DAVIS: White. Oh, yes. I most certainly do. I'm a realist in America. I mean, we've made a lot of progress in this country, but we certainly haven't gotten to the penthouse. And I'm not the kind of person who's going to be in the basement and think I've made to the penthouse. I mean, there is still a tremendous amount of disparity, there is a tremendous amount of injustice.

I visit jails and prisons all the time. And you know what? The last prison, big prison that I spoke to inmates at, there were eight or nine hundred inmates in the room. Eight hundred and fifty of them were African-American males. I guarantee you, when I go to traffic court that the preponderates of individuals who will be there will be African-Americans, and then the next group will be Latinos.

MARTIN: I think the - some would argue that if those are the folks committing the infractions, then that's unfortunate, but that's who has to be in court.

DAVIS: So they don't know how to drive. They don't know how to observe traffic laws. There is some difference between their approach to driving an automobile and the approaches that other people use. Well, you know, I find that pretty difficult to believe.

MARTIN: Congressman, it's my understanding that your case is to be heard next week, is that correct?

DAVIS: December the 28th.

MARTIN: What would you say to some who would argue, you know what, it's $75, just - you know, walk away.

DAVIS: Pay it and be gone.

MARTIN: Pay it and go on with your life. What would you say?

DAVIS: Well, first of all, $75 is a lot of money. These are tough economic times. But secondly, it's really a matter of justice. It's not the $75. I just want to believe that as a citizen in this country that I have equal protection under the law and that I can have a situation assessed fairly, that people can look at it, and that a court of law can determine what the outcome is. I think I was wrongfully stopped and certainly I think I was wrongfully given a citation.

MARTIN: And what would you like to happen at your hearing next week? What would make you feel vindicated?

DAVIS: Well, I want to go through the judicial process that information be presented and a court of law will determine who's telling the truth. Was there any justification to stop me? If there was, then I certainly want to know what it is. I am not an irrational, illogical person. And so I just want justice to prevail.

MARTIN: Danny Davis, a Chicago Democrat is in his sixth term in Congress. He joined us from the studios in Capitol Hill. Congressman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DAVIS: Well, thank you so very much and I really appreciate the opportunity.

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