Russell Johnson, photo by Jonathan Welch
My article on possible racial profiling in Asheville was the cover story in last week's issue of the Mountain Xpress. It's an attempt to tackle a thorny topic, taking a look at the statistics and the cases of two people with clean criminal records facing run-ins with law enforcement that they believe were partially racially motivated.
There's the numbers:
Between Nov. 1, 2008, and Oct. 31 of this year, the APD reported making 6,264 traffic stops. Of those stopped, 873 (13.9 percent) were African-Americans. According to census data, roughly 17 percent of Asheville residents are African-American. Hispanics, meanwhile, accounted for 215 of those APD stops (3.4 percent); 5 percent of Asheville's population is Hispanic. So, by that measure, the statistics give no hint of racial profiling.
Once stopped, however, African-American men are statistically far more likely to be searched. During that same time period, the APD reported conducting 509 car searches. Of those, 180 — more than a third — involved black males.
Then the case of Navy veteran Russell Johnson:
"We wanted to get away from the Bele Chere weekend crowds," he remembers. "The park rangers were breaking down a DUI checkpoint, and I was taking pictures on the Mills River Bridge. The moon was a sliver: It was red and so beautiful, and I just had to get a picture."
Johnson's car was parked on the other side of the bridge, and he walked over to talk to the rangers before heading back to his vehicle.
"When I walked up to one of the cars — there were four at the entrance — I waved and said, 'I really appreciate what y'all are doing, keeping us safe on the Parkway.' I asked how long it would take to get to Pisgah from here," says Johnson, who wanted to get more photographs before the light faded. "He told me — and this is a park ranger — he didn't know what I was talking about."
On video, Johnson can be clearly seen walking up to the car and waving, though his words aren't audible. Three rangers emerge from surrounding vehicles and direct Johnson to put his hands behind his back.
"I obliged, and they started searching me, going through my little fanny pack, which just had my flashlight, my compass — things you use in the woods," says Johnson. "One of the rangers grabbed my hands and shoved them up between my shoulder blades."
The impact was so hard that Johnson will now require surgery for a damaged disc, hospital documents confirm. "I get dizzy: I'm a disabled veteran with some nerve troubles; this didn't help things," he says.
And finally, local musician Jonathan Scales:
"I came out of The Rocket Club, I saw a friend of mine, happened to be my Realtor (I was buying a house at the time). I went to say 'hey' to him, but he was on the phone and I didn't want to disturb him, so I shook his hand," remembers Scales. "I walked a couple of blocks down and this police officer stops me and asked if I knew the man at the gas station. He told me, 'I saw that handshake; it looked kind of suspicious.'"
Scales told Officer Kelly Radford that the person was his real-estate agent.
"Basically, at that point he accused me, said, 'Well, it looked like a drug deal,'" Scales relates. "I was shocked. I've never done drugs a day in my life. He took my ID; he asked if I minded if he searched me. I told him I did mind, that I hadn't done anything wrong; he would just be wasting his time."
According to Scales, Radford then told him that if he was innocent, he wouldn't object to being searched.
"I didn't know a handshake counted as probable cause, that it was suspect," Scales says with a chuckle. "It was apparent I wasn't getting out of it. I refused it for about five minutes, then I let him search me. I was against the cop car, his hands on top of my hands, I got the whole pat-down treatment."
Williams, the APD spokesperson, backed up that assessment, confirming that Radford did, in fact, find Scales' handshake suspicious.
"Jonathan Scales was searched by an APD officer, pursuant to consent, based on actions that appeared to the officer to be a hand-to-hand transaction of some type (and not a mere handshake greeting) on Haywood Road," she wrote Xpress in response to questions about the incident. "No contraband was discovered, and the officer apologized to Mr. Scales for delaying him."
Comments and thoughts welcome.