Lincoln could be the next Ferguson, Missouri.
That’s what the ACLU of Nebraska’s legal director told the Nebraska Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Friday, saying blacks, Latinos and other non-white drivers think Lincoln police officers are profiling them.
And if something isn’t done to dispel that perception, or fight racial profiling if it exists, bad things could happen, Amy Miller told commissioners.
“You can have explosive possibilities,” she said. “Ferguson, Missouri, could easily happen in Lincoln, Nebraska.”
Blacks make up 9.6 percent of all drivers Lincoln police stop, but just 3.5 percent of the city's population, according to statistics collected by the Crime Commission for the past 12 years.
ACLU of Nebraska officials called that racial profiling in an August report.
Last month, they joined two dozen other organizations and individuals and pushed the commission to investigate the Lincoln Police Department and three other agencies with what they called alarmingly high rates of racial profiling.
Miller backed off that rhetoric Friday and said she doesn’t know why there’s a disparity between the number of non-white drivers stopped and their portion of the population. But, she added, blacks and other non-whites certainly think police are targeting them.
At Friday’s meeting, commissioners, civil rights leaders and police agreed: Someone needs to take a closer look at why the disparity exists.
But who will do the looking? What data will they need? Who will pay for the staff needed to delve deeper?
If he had his druthers, Crime Commission Executive Director Darrell Fisher said, he’d be able to get more data and the people to analyze it. Now, he said, he doesn’t have the bodies to throw at that kind of project.
“I can’t talk about what I need without talking about funding, manpower, resources,” he said after the meeting.
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Lincoln and Omaha police have agreed to provide additional data to commission staff or to outside researchers, like a university professor. Miller said she thinks there’s probably state and federal grant money that could pay for staff needed to tackle the project, and she's willing to help find it.
Miller and Fisher agreed that both sides should meet and talk about pursuing the “more study” avenue as opposed to the “hammer” route.
After the meeting, Fisher said that if they can join law enforcement to hash out a plan everyone agrees on, he can sell it to the Legislature.
Lincoln Police Chief Jim Peschong has said his captains deploy resources where they get the most calls for help. And if those places have more non-white residents, they’re going to have more contact with officers.
In a blog post last month, Lincoln Public Safety Director Tom Casady pointed out that blacks get busted for certain traffic violations at rates four or fives times their population numbers. These violations include driving on suspended licenses, not having insurance and improper registration -- all offenses tied to money.
While it's possible a racist officer is targeting blacks, which could be cleared up through internal discipline, Miller said, it's also possible it's a case of institutionalized racism.
“These are just questions we don’t know the answer to,” she said.
But as long as people of color believe they’re being profiled, it will hurt their relationships with police and hinder investigators when they need the eyes and ears of the community.
The issue is whether a community trusts its police officers or not, Miller said.
Racial profiling is subtle, she said. A black driver may get pulled over three times in a month for no discernible reason and have to wait 20 minutes each time.
Miller compared each successive stop or interaction with police to grating cheese. One trip over the grater doesn’t shave much off.
“But if you keep going, you erode that entire block of cheese.”