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Justice being denied

Severlin B. Singleton III

Justice being denied

As an African American judge with more than 20 years on the bench, I am keenly aware of how much racism permeates our criminal justice system. I am also as qualified as anyone to speak about the incident involving Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge police officers.

During my tenure on the bench, I have seen arrests that sometimes cause me to scratch my head in disbelief. I also have seen arrests where uncivil behavior, similar to Professor Gates’ alleged behavior, results in an arrest.

Police officers often arrest individuals, sometimes without probable cause, who yell, scream or sometimes use the wrong word(s) in a conversational tone to berate them in front of the public or fellow officers. Whether right or wrong, such a tactic is often used to defuse a situation before it gets out of control, and sometimes to summarily punish an individual with a night in jail.

When done without probable cause or without an objective view of the facts, it is a misuse of a police officer’s discretion and his police power.

If Professor Gates was yelling at and berating Sgt. James Crowley — and implying that his actions and motive were racist — then I can understand the sergeant’s subsequent action.

I understand it, but I do not believe it was the right thing to do under the circumstances. He could have withdrawn from the situation by simply walking away. Without police presence, Professor Gates’ words would have had no target. However, Sgt. Crowley believed he had probable cause to arrest Professor Gates and did so. Did he misuse his discretion? Maybe. It is still open for debate.

However, during my tenure, I have seen individuals arrested for such reasons who are white, black, young and old. I have not noticed any particular police bias toward any one of these groups. This view, along with the reports I have read and heard, whether slanted toward Professor Gates’ or Sgt. Crowley’s version, lead me to conclude that it was highly unlikely that race was a factor in Sgt. Crowley’s arrest of Professor Gates. If it were a factor, it was low on the list of factors. Professor Gates seems to think it was the only factor. I disagree.

More importantly, I have become very critical about the media’s coverage of the incident. Objectivity has not been the goal of the coverage. They have slanted facts to fit the already entrenched position of the reporter, interviewer or the subject of the interview.

They have sensationalized the story beyond recognition. The coverage has been disproportionate to the seriousness of the event. The dialogue we should be having about racism in America does not get coverage.

The present coverage lessens our opportunity to have an intelligent discussion about race and racism in the criminal justice system. The election of an African American as president has not eradicated 400 years of racism.

We still desperately need a discussion on race. The coverage and dialogue around the event have taken us far away from an intelligent and therefore constructive discussion.

I do not fault Professor Gates for believing that Cambridge police arrested him solely because of the color of his skin; however, it does contribute to the marginalization of the issues.

Willingly or not, right or wrong, he has become the poster child for racial profiling.

But any intelligent and constructive discussion has to begin with racial profiling of young black and Hispanic men, whom police officers routinely stop in our urban areas because of the color of their skin, their baggy pants and their hooded sweatshirts.

It has to begin with understanding that we arrest young black and Hispanic men at an alarming rate, and sentence them to prison at a rate far disproportionate to their numbers in the population. It has to include a discussion about how blacks and Hispanics are arrested for drug offenses and sentenced to prison for longer periods of time than white defendants charged with similar offenses.

The so-called “war on drugs” and mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses has taken an entire generation of young black and Hispanic males from us. Their ability to return to society as productive members is further hindered by the ability of potential employers to obtain copies of their records through the many flaws in Massachusetts’ Criminal Offender Record Information system.

It is a sad commentary on the media and the state of race in America when a privileged black Harvard professor creates an uproar about racial profiling. The reports and the facts that paint pictures of unequal treatment have been present for years and are conveniently ignored.

An intelligent conversation on race and the criminal justice system should be properly analyzed and framed in a well-reasoned way. Read “The Failure of the War on Drugs: Charting a New Course for the Commonwealth,” a report prepared by the Massachusetts Bar Association Drug Policy Task Force. It is an outstanding document that begins comprehensively and intelligently to discuss a way we can bring equal justice to all of our citizens of color.

The Honorable Severlin B. Singleton III is a justice on the Cambridge District Court.