Suncoast residents worry police engaged in racial profiling

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SARASOTA, Fla. -- As the community gathers to talk about the Rodney Mitchell shooting, many say the incident is also shedding light on the bigger issue of racial profiling.

"When my kids call me at night, I’m so worried because I’m thinking the police have them pulled over or something has happened," says Sarasota resident and mother of four Jacqueline Ramos. She says the racial profiling -- or what many refer to as “driving while black” -- has become a major concern in her household.

"I don’t know if they're pulling them over because they’re black or because it’s their last name, but every week my son is getting a ticket," Ramos says. And her concerns go way beyond a fine.

"I always tell them if the lights come on, pull over [and] cooperate, don't get out of the car,” Ramos says. “And if [the police] say something slick to you, don't say anything back because I don't want anything to happen to my kids, not at the hands of the police."

I asked what Ramos meant when she said she worries that “something has happened” to her kids. Ramos’ response was chilling, in that she says she worries that police will “kill my kids, kill my kids.”

Ramos isn't alone in her fears. Racial profiling is something that many in the African-American community say they deal with.

"We got surrounded by Alachua County cops, faces in the ground [and] guns to our heads,” says well known Newtown resident Ernest DuBose. “I had to do the whole ‘take your key out and drop it to the ground,’" he says, recalling an incident that occurred years ago while he was in college. It’s an experience that stuck with DuBose, and he now uses the situation to warn others about the dangers of driving while black.

"As a young black male you are always taught to be careful, make sure you don't make sudden moves, etc.,” he says. “When you encounter officials you must act a certain way, you must make sure you don't give them a chance to stereotype."

A report published by the ACLU in 1999 showcased data on racial profiling stops in metro areas. The report showed that despite African-Americans making up 42 percent of the Philadelphia population, they accounted for 79 percent of the traffic stops made there during the week of March 7, 1997.

It’s a statistic that many say can be repeated on any given day in many areas, not everyone is convinced that “driving while black” is a real thing.

Critics point to a Temple University study that determined about 75 percent of the motorists and traffic violators along one stretch of Interstate 95 were white -- but that same study found 80 percent of searches were of minorities.

Sarasota NAACP president Trevor Harvey points to incidents like the Rodney Mitchell shooting and the complaints they've received about profiling as evidence that it’s happening here on the Suncoast. Regardless of the debate, Harvey says history has shown that things don’t end well when a minority makes a bad decision during a traffic stop.

"We may say, ‘Why should I have to comply, I’m human just like they are,’” Harvey says. “Yes, you are human just like they are. Yes, your life should be valued just like their life should be valued. But we do know that at the end of the day it’s just this world that we live in. So in order to come home safe, you know, I just have to bite my tongue sometimes. We have to rise above the occasion to be able to come home safely and move forward."

Harvey says the concern expands beyond the illegal stop to the safety of the person being stopped, because many like Harvey say the slightest movement could result in the situation going south.

"We have seen cases where they've been killed, they've been beaten, you know, drugged out of cars and been beaten,” Harvey says. “They've been arrested, so you really don’t know how the situation is going to turn out."

"They have to drive a different way, they have to react a different way if they're stopped,” Harvey says of black drivers. “This is why you don’t try to handle those battles while being stopped. … First of all, you say, ‘Officer, my insurance card is in the glove box, I need to go into my glove box.’ Try to be as respectful and as cordial as you can.”

Incentives like the 411 curriculum provide African-Americans tips on how to respond during a questionable stop by law enforcement.

"This issue of ‘driving while black’ or ‘walking while black’ is for real,” Harvey says. “Some believe that it is not for real, but those of us of color kinda live and breathe those issues on a daily basis."