Trayvon Martin tragedy teaches important lessons

Matthew R. Segal | 3/28/2012, 7:22 a.m.

It might be tempting to blame outright racism, or at least racial profiling, for these statistics. But the truth is probably more complicated. Even if race affects an officer’s judgment about whether a black man is reaching for his wallet or a gun, the officer might believe that he is coldly assessing the facts. So protecting innocent people of color from dangerous confrontations with the police, or with armed citizens, isn’t as simple as decrying racism. It requires research and training on which behaviors are truly suspicious and which are not.

Every level of government needs this same evidence-based approach. On the day he was shot, for example, Martin was serving a five-day suspension from school for mere tardiness. It is unclear why his school thought that the street, rather than the classroom, was the best place for him.

That’s why the data being kept in Boston, New York and Los Angeles is so important. The police and the public need to know how often blacks and Latinos are stopped, for what reasons, and whether those stops are out of proportion to actual black and Latino crime. If so, then all of us who engage in profiling — citizens and officers alike — should rethink our guesses about who is suspicious.

Armed confrontations are too dangerous, and the need to catch real criminals is too important, to leave it all up to gut instinct.

Matthew R. Segal is legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts.