Originally created 02/04/01

Driver's account highlights racial profiling dilemma



AIKEN - Spread-eagled on the hood of a police cruiser while three officers, with guns drawn, stood around him in the darkness, Dr. Gerald Oliver feared he'd never see his wife again, never hold his yet to be born child.

The action seemed excessive for what they said he was doing: driving erratically and speeding, he says three years later. In the end, he drove home so glad to be alive that he might not have minded a ticket or written warning. The officers never gave him one.

And surely nothing like that would ever happen again, the Aiken physician thought. But it did, he said - less than 12 hours later, guns and all, on the same stretch of road in broad daylight.

Dr. Oliver, who practices internal medicine and pediatrics, says he did nothing that merited being pulled over. What he did is called among blacks and Hispanics "driving while black or brown," an unwritten law, they say, that leads to unwarranted traffic stops based on racial profiling.

Between the lines is an alleged assumption that nonwhites might be up to no good, especially if they are driving an expensive vehicle or if they are in a mostly white neighborhood.

And many say racial profiling isn't limited to driving. It can occur while walking, running, jogging or shopping, or even while standing still.

Prodded by civil rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union, which say racial profiling is a serious problem nationwide, 25 states, including Georgia, last year considered measures to prevent it. Eighteen states took steps of some kind, eight of them passing laws to curtail traffic stops based on race.

The Georgia bill, which failed in the Senate, was reintroduced this year. South Carolina lawmakers are considering a similar bill with Aiken Democratic Rep. Bill Clyburn as a sponsor. Both bills would require police to record details about every traffic stop - data that might determine whether drivers are being stopped for who they are rather than what they've done. The data also would reveal any officers with a racially based pattern of stopping people.

Dr. Oliver says he doesn't think what happened to him is common in Aiken. He chooses to think all the officers involved were violating local policy rather than carrying it out, and he says he bears no grudge.

But he hasn't forgotten those hours in the spring of 1998. "I was spared my life," he says.

Later, a colleague said some people would think it "militant" for a black man to wear a Stetson hat and cowboy boots - gear Dr. Oliver had adopted while living in New Mexico.

"I hardly ever wear them anymore," he said wistfully. "And that's profiling, too."

Other area residents who've told friends they've been stopped for no apparent reason except their race did not want to talk openly about it.

THE THURSDAY THAT Dr. Oliver was stopped should have been a happy one. The young doctor and his wife, expecting their first child, had found their dream house and put down $1,000 earnest money.

But that afternoon, an infant patient was admitted to Medical College of Georgia Hospital. Dr. Oliver does not practice in Georgia, but he wanted to be with the child and mother for a while.

"I drove home at midnight on the Aiken-Augusta Highway," he said, "and I set my cruise control at 55 at Clearwater, but you know how people drive on that road. Everybody was passing me."

Every vehicle but one. Dr. Oliver said the car stayed on his bumper all the way to the bypass that leads to Houndslake. He made the right turn, and so did the car on his tail.

"I drove a little way, and all of a sudden the blue light came on," the doctor recalls. "Then I saw another police car coming toward me, and its blue light was on. Then came a third one."

He pulled over to let them go past, but all three cars stopped around his pickup truck, he says. The officers "jumped out of their cars with their guns drawn and they all ran over to me."

Dr. Oliver remembers fumbling for his registration in the glove box and wondering when the officers would see their mistake. He noticed a state trooper's uniform and an Aiken city policeman's, he says. He wasn't certain about the third.

"It was dark, and I wondered why the one car had followed me so far and waited to stop me where there was no light ... I got out of my truck, and my knees were shaking."

He says the trooper motioned toward one of the cruisers with his gun. "I walked across and lay across the hood of the car like he told me to do. I asked why I'd been stopped, and they said I was driving erratically and speeding. I knew I hadn't been speeding, and I said so."

But it didn't seem wise to say more - "I could see one of them from where I was, and his gun was wagging in his hand down by his side. I started to wonder if I would get home alive."

After what seemed a long time, he says, one of the men abruptly said, "You can get back in your car."

Still trembling, Dr. Oliver said he had trouble putting back his license and registration, and the officer yelled at him to hurry up and go.

There was no ticket and no warning.

THE NEXT MORNING after hospital rounds, Dr. Oliver says, he was again on the bypass at about the same spot when he was pulled over about 9 o'clock.

"It was the same thing all over again," he recalls. "Three cars. Three officers, guns and all."

This time, he says, the officers were from the city and county.

"They had me on the hood of the car when my beeper went off. It was the hospital paging me. One of them looked at my beeper and said, `Better get going. They need you.' And they let me go on to the hospital."

He says that's when he realized that both times the officers had called him "Dr. Oliver." "Oliver" would have been on his driver's license; "Dr." would not.

Later that day, he says he tried to report the incidents and started by asking for the duty officer at the Aiken Department of Public Safety - the person in charge.

"They told me there wasn't one," he recalls. "So I asked who would be the person I should talk to about what happened to me. I was told there was no one there with the authority to take that kind of report."

Frustrated, Dr. Oliver said he decided to confront top-level authorities in both local police agencies when he saw them the following Monday at Rotary Club. Sitting at their table, he said he asked point-blank, "Am I being told to leave town?"

"They didn't seem to know what I was talking about and said they'd check into it," Dr. Oliver said. "There was no report filed on either stop."

Boykin Rose, who heads the South Carolina Department of Public Safety, has started requiring troopers to keep detailed records on every stop. But he says race can't be the only reason a driver is stopped and it can't be a pretext for searching a vehicle.

Capt. Tom Galardi, spokesman for the Aiken Department of Public Safety, said the city also discourages officers from stopping drivers without a specific reason. An incident like those Dr. Oliver describes would not be condoned, he said last week.

Lt. Michael Frank, spokesman for the Aiken County Sheriff's Office, said deputies "certainly cannot stop someone indiscriminately unless there is at least reasonable suspicion they have done something wrong."

THE ACLU CONSIDERS racial profiling a pervasive problem nationwide and is trying to collect data in all states to see how common it is. In Georgia, there's a hot line: (877) 653-DWBB.

In South Carolina, the Legislative Black Caucus is collecting stories from people who believe they were wrongly pulled over by police because of race or ethnicity. Hopkins Democratic Rep. Joe Neal, chairman of the caucus, said he's gotten more than 100 reports in the past few weeks. And 33 people gave personal accounts at a January forum in Columbia.

The Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies will adopt in March standards on profiling that its members must follow to stay accredited.

Aiken's Department of Public Safety is one of 20 South Carolina law enforcement agencies accredited by CALEA, and the Columbia County Sheriff's Office is one of 33 in Georgia.

Capt. Galardi said the city is sending a representative to the CALEA meeting in March but already is training officers to be sure the pending standards are followed. In Columbia County, Capt. Bill Probus said the sheriff's office already is doing what the new CALEA standard is expected to require.

Tom Turnipseed, a Columbia attorney who is president of the Atlanta-based Citizens for Democratic Renewal, a coalition of civil rights organizations, is starting a Citizens Committee on Racial Profiling.

He says racial profiling echoes throughout the criminal justice system.

Georgia and South Carolina both have about seven times as many black men in prison as white men. A contributing factor to those numbers is unwarranted traffic stops, followed by searches - a product of the federal war on drugs, which included race as one reason for stopping people, Mr. Turnipseed said.

"All over the country, studies and witnesses tell the same story," he said. "Nonwhite motorists and pedestrians are being targeted for stops, searches and harassment."

Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.

New standards

The Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies will set its standards on racial profiling in March. Details won't be available until the commissioners vote on four draft proposals, said program Manager Dennis Hyater, but the standards are likely to include:

Guidelines on when it's appropriate to consider race when stopping a driver or pedestrian.

Training requirements for officers.

A process for reviewing traffic stops for signs of racial bias.

A requirement that records be kept and analyzed.