Seattle Cops, Wary of Race-Profiling Accusations, Cutting Back on Minority Arrests

Amid charges of racism, many Seattle police officers say they are cutting back on the number of arrests they make in minority communities.

Officers still respond to 911 emergency calls. But cops on the beat are ignoring many traffic violations and other minor offenses.

This form of passive law enforcement — some are calling the cops "tourists in blue," — is not official policy, but the practice is growing among individual officers who fear more aggressive police work will be labeled as "racial profiling."

Sgt. Mike Edwards, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, describes the practice as NCNC  — "No contact. No complaint."

Seattle police have been inundated with complaints of "racial profiling" following the recent fatal shootings of two black suspects.

On May 31, a white policeman shot work-release escapee Aaron Roberts while the suspect was dragging the officer's partner from the side of his car.

In April 2000, David John Walker was shot while walking down a sidewalk brandishing a knife. Walker was also carrying a gun and had fired shots outside a nearby grocery store.

In both cases, police say the suspects ignored repeated warnings to surrender. In the Walker case, there was even local TV news footage confirming the officer's story. Yet both shootings prompted hundreds of protesters, black and white, to take to the streets accusing Seattle police of murder and genocide.

Such accusations carry a lot of weight with leaders of this city, which prides itself on civility. But many rank-and-file cops say weak-kneed politicians are affecting their ability to serve and protect.

Seattle police were ordered to hold back during this year's Mardi Gras protests, when a white man was beaten to death by an angry mob while trying to rescue a woman under attack.

Most of the suspects arrested in the disturbances were black, and the cops were subsequently accused of targeting minorities.

Racial profiling has become a popular charge among critics of police, who say officers place a disproportionate emphasis on patrolling minority neighborhoods and are more likely to be suspicious of minorities.

"There's a bad element everywhere," said Seattle resident Richard Mitchell. "The patrols should be just as balanced in the predominantly white neighborhoods as they are in the black neighborhoods."

Sgt. Edwards disagrees.

"The officers are there because they're being called there. The minority communities, the poor communities, the areas that have the highest incidence of crime have the greatest need for police," Edwards said.

But some officers are starting to wonder whether aggressive police work is worth the risk of being accused of racism and being investigated by city officials.

The problem is not unique to Seattle. Police around the country say the reputations, and even careers, of men and women in blue are often jeopardized by the racial politics of those who see law enforcement in black and white.