DRIVING WHILE NOT-WHITE 

Albert Ortiz's first year as San Antonio's police chief hasn't been an easy one.

He had barely broken in his new office chair when he found himself engaged in a heated verbal spat with the police union; an ex-con shot named James Lichtenwalter shot four of his officers with their own guns at a North Side Denny's; last month he suspended three sergeants for not responding to a complaint about a drunk driver who later allegedly killed someone; and one of his detectives was recently convicted for soliciting a prostitute.

And although an analysis by the Express-News last year showed officers are more likely to use force against minorities than against Anglo suspects, Ortiz seems to welcome a forthcoming Racial Profiling and Use of Force study that will put the SAPD's recent history under the microscope. The department applied for the study, which is being funded by a $114,011 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice's COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) office.

SAPD has been collecting use-of-force data only since 1999 and racial-profiling statistics since 2001.

"When we saw that the Department of Justice had the opportunity to provide grants, we thought it would be beneficial for us and the community to hire somebody from outside San Antonio to do a study on the data that we've gathered - to look at our data, verify its quality and to interpret and analyze it and give us a report."

The SAPD began compiling racial-profiling data two years ago, after the Texas Legislature passed a bill mandating police departments to create a racial-profiling policy, training program, and data-collection system. Since then, the issue of racial profiling has only broadened its scope and complexity, with the September 11 terrorist attacks often inducing authorities to target Muslims and immigrants from the Middle East. In San Antonio, three men of Palestinian descent were arrested last July after a stripper said she had overheard them talking at a local bar about blowing up local military bases.

"It makes it more difficult," Ortiz says of the post-9-11 climate of fear in America. "One of the things we've advocated, for everything, is the importance of documentation. But that extends outside as we assist federal agencies with some of these investigations into terrorist activities.

"We're acutely sensitive to the fact that we may be dealing with just a certain segment of the population that are of interest to the federal government. We make sure that we're just not out there rounding them all up, that the feds are able to articulate to us why these people are of interest."

In a racial-profiling study released last year, the Police Executive Research Forum (a national organization of self-described progressive police executives) determined that a persistent problem surrounding racial profiling is that many police departments don't know how to define it.

PERF found that most departments' policies forbid stops, arrests or searches based "solely" on a person's race or ethnicity. But PERF points out that race or ethnicity should not be considered at all, except when it's based on trustworthy, locally relevant information "that links a person or persons of a specific race/ethnicity to a particular unlawful incident."

To Ortiz, the first Latino ever to rise from patrolman to police chief in the San Antonio Police Department, the issue is simple. "`Racial profiling` is targeting a group based on anything other than sound police practices," he says. "That is: reasonable suspicion, response to calls, probable cause, and those tenets which have been the foundation of this police profession since before I came on the department."

He sees the overriding issue as his department's need to establish trust within the community. For that reason, he has chosen not to do the study in-house, deciding to take bids from private companies outside of San Antonio. A company should be chosen by the end of March, and Ortiz estimates that it'll take about six months to analyze the SAPD's data.

"I would love to be able to say, 'I think we're doing the right thing, and the data will verify that,'" he says. "But I think it's an opportunity for us to look at training, look at cultural diversity and see if we need any help in that area, and to improve the department. And in my mind, the only way you can improve the department is with how the community receives you." •


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