Published: September 17, 2007
[X]press Magazine

By Christine Joy Ferrer

The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) police officers that pulled over Cassonova Tiger at around 1:30 a.m. didn’t tell him why they were searching his car. Instead, the routine was hashed out: step out of the car and put your arms behind your head. He fit the description of an alleged suspect. The police officers said witnesses pointed to a black Honda as Tiger drove past the scene of a crime near San Francisco’s Mission district. But his Honda was gray.

Over the police intercom, the dispatcher said the suspect had stowed away a sawed-off shotgun in the trunk of his car. Seconds later, Tiger’s arm was twisted behind his back, his feet swept from under him, and his head driven into the pavement. The cop’s knee was jammed into his neck. The other cop checked the trunk, but it was empty.

Tiger, 21, who was young and black, was not their man. But he was taken to the Hall of Justice anyway and questioned by a detective. He might know something about the suspect who stabbed someone at the club City Nights earlier that evening, an event that occurred in June of this year.

“All this for a gun I don’t have and the description of a person that I don’t even know,” Tiger says, reflecting on the event.

San Francisco, a city applauded its diversity, also conceals another face – one that sizes you up by what you wear, the friends that you roll with, the car you drive and the color of your skin. It’s the same place where many people of color have experienced racial profiling by the SFPD and have been illegally searched during traffic stops.

“[The police] see me like I’m some type of low life. Even those people who do sell drugs, you don’t know what they been through to make those decisions,” says Tiger. “They think I beat women, that I didn’t go to school — whose only goal is to sell drugs and use them.”

In 2002, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU) found that the SFPD had failed to adequately address the issues surrounding racial profiling. African Americans and Latinos were 3.3 times and 2.6 times more likely, respectively, to be searched following a traffic stop than whites. SFPD police officers were also significantly less likely to find any evidence of criminality in searches of African Americans or Latinos, according to the ACLU.

Five years later, it seems nothing has changed. A month after the ACLU report, the Police Commission required the department to make monthly reports on race, sex, and age of motorists they stopped and whether or no their vehicles were searched. This past March, the San Francisco Chronicle found that the police have failed to accurately report traffic-stop data. They stopped writing the required summary reports more than a year before The Chronicle’s investigation, and the data collected from 2001 through November 2005 were incomplete.

One of the first times Tiger was profiled by an SFPD officer, he wasn’t even in a car. At 17, he was standing on 6th Street waiting for the #14 bus with his friends when a police squad car pulled the infamous U-turn in their direction – the U-turn that makes black brothers nervous. Even if they’ve done nothing wrong, they know they’re about to be fucked with. The officer asked them if they had anything – weed, coke or any illegal drugs. They weren’t. The next thing they knew, the officer told each of them to open their mouths as he stuck a pen down each of their throats. He was trying to make them gag — searching for any remnants from consumed illegal drugs. For some reason, he didn’t stick a pen down Tiger’s.

“A lot of times black males don’t know their rights. It’s just a reality. [The police] use that to their advantage,” says Tiger. “I always have to have my shit together and can’t even afford one parking ticket.”

Squad car officer Anthony Holder, who has worked for 16 years with the SFPD and is black and Mexican, disagrees and says racial profiling cannot exist in a city that is as diverse as San Francisco.

“In the earlier days, I’m sure [racial profiling] is there or if you go out into the suburbs where they don’t have people of color,” says Holder.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police who illegally stop a car cannot hold the passengers for questions or possible searches in California.

In July, an officer in the San Francisco Bay Area in Daly City, Calif. pulled Tiger and his cousins over for a crack in the windshield, loud music and unfastened seat belts. But none of the listed conditions for the arrest were true.

“I can’t even see [the crack], unless he got cat vision or bionic eyes or something,” says Tiger.

They weren’t speeding, but the cop said they were dancing. Their music wasn’t blaring because they were talking amongst themselves, predicting what this cop was going to do when they first caught a glimpse of him in the rear-view mirror. They were detained for an hour and a half, handcuffed, patted-down and manhandled by their shirt collars. His cousin’s car was also towed for three parking tickets.

“I stand by the department’s policy. [In our bylaws] there is a section called ‘Discrimination’…we can’t give preferential treatment for one group over another on the basis of color,” says SFPD Public Information Officer Dewayne Tully. “If a car is stopped and the driver is African American, that is beside the point. There has to be a reason why we stop the car. If it turns out they are disproportionate, it simply means they were committing more violations.”

In the 1970s, the War on Drugs hit its peak with Americans fighting to keep drugs from entering their communities. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan advised the country to “Just say No” and catapulted racial profiling into the limelight before the term was even coined. A 1980s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) study showed that most drugs were imported into the communities through highways. The DEA informed U.S. citizens that those distributing the drugs were Latinos and Blacks, ages 18-30.

“So officers at checkpoints weren’t looking for speeders, they were looking for the description: ‘oh he must be drug dealer. Pull over. If you don’t have anything on you then you shouldn’t worry, and you should let us ,’” says Kenneth Meeks, the author of the book Driving While Black and editor of Black Enterprise magazine.

“And when they’d [find] someone who was a drug dealer, with $30 million worth of drugs in their trunk, these paydays were reasons to continue the practice,” says Meeks. “They think, ‘We stopped 15 cars, sure it was an inconvenience to all the other drivers, but we got this one guy so it’s worth it.’”

* * *

Born and raised in San Francisco, Mexican-American Julio Ibarra, 29, estimates he’s been profiled more than 100 times in the city.

“If you’re anywhere from 18 to 25, don’t look professional, [driving] in an Escalade with a couple of your friends, then they’ll fuck with you — because if the car looks that good, either it [has] stolen parts or the person’s dealing drugs,” says Ibarra.

Most, if not all, of Ibarra’s and Tiger’s friends, colleagues, and family, who are mostly people of color, have been racially profiled by an SFPD police officer. For the few who are white, they’ve been mistaken for “white-trash” because of one-too-many tattoos.

A year ago, Ibarra was driving downtown with one male and two female friends in his ’96 candy-apple red Chevy Impala. The car’s interior was newly finished and the exterior and rims were also new. When the cop pulled him over, he didn’t ask for ID. But Ibarra didn’t hesitate to have all his paperwork in hand — registration, insurance and valid ID.

“I asked if there was a problem, and he said to step out [of] the fucking car, asked me where my shit was, and from who and what location did I get my brand new paint job,” says Ibarra.

Everyone stepped out. The cop started tapping the car with his baton, hitting its side panels, and even sat on it. He then searched the car for five minutes and came out with a bag of weed. Ibarra said it wasn’t his.

“I don’t bring that shit in my car, and my friends know if they do, they’re gonna get their asses beat,” he says. “I told [the officer] if he goes and gets that shit fingerprinted, I bet you won’t find mine.”

The cop let them go.

“Good cops are dead cops, but then you know what, they’ll get away with murder,” he says. “A cop is just like another gang member…part of a well-organized gang that’s well protected by the law.”

Ibarra’s criminal past only makes his situation more difficult. He has been charged for possession of a fire arm, a high speed chase, two attempted murders, assault with deadly weapon, and gang-related rival fights as an ex-member of one of San Francisco’s notorious gangs, Barrio Grande Excelsior. Ibarra lost count of his times to jail after the 20th trip.

“Damn, but just because I’m labeled doesn’t mean I’m an animal,” he says.

* * *

The night Tiger was mistaken for the perpetrator of the club stabbing, the detective at the station complimented his hat, asked him where he usually hangs out and if he uses dope.

“He kept patronizing me, trying to say that I’m a drug dealer. Like I can’t work to get clothes or that I don’t have any other way to get my shit besides selling drugs,” says Tiger.

The SFPD ran a background check on him. Today, as it was then, his record is clean.

The Police officer, Holder and Tully all claim there isn’t any credible evidence that racial profiling exists. Police officers who are found guilty will be disciplined, SFPD says, but to their knowledge, they do not know of any officers who have been disciplined for racial profiling.

Within recent months, racially profiling accusations towards the SFPD have subsided, explains Tully. Its fire may have slowly burnt out from media attention, but does that mean profiling has ended?

“If people are racist, they keep it hidden…they’re not gonna say it. Can you prove it? No,” says Holder. “But you know they’re racist. A gut feeling tells you they are. You get that little hair that sticks up on the back of your neck.”

Both Ibarra and Tiger know this gut feeling very well. It’s the same feeling that haunts them whenever they look in their rear-view mirror and a police squad car trails close behind.

Before Tiger left the cold, foreboding station around 4 a.m. and added this event to the other numerous times he’s been harassed, the detective asked him if he ever thought about joining law enforcement. Tiger answered: “Hell, no. Why would I want to be like you?”