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Just How Widespread Is Racial Profiling in Florida Traffic Stops?

A Windermere police officer -- a training officer, in fact -- is currently on trial for allegedly conducting traffic stops solely based on the race of the driver, which is a violation of those drivers' constitutional right to be free from illegal search and seizure. One of the officers he trained recently testified that the man had instructed him to pull over what he called "Bravo vehicles," which he admitted meant certain types of cars driven by African Americans, although he denies the term was meant derogatively. The trainee also said he witnessed the man stopping three "Bravo vehicles" for no legal reason during the month he was being trained.

Generally, when law enforcement officers can be shown to have engaged in illegal search and seizure, the main consequence is that any evidence officers obtain that way is excluded as evidence -- it cannot be used against the defendant in court. It's also possible to bring a civil rights lawsuit against the police for constitutional violations, but people rarely do so over traffic tickets or even drunk driving charges.

While the exclusion of tainted evidence can encourage police not to overstep the bounds of their authority, it's often not enough. Law enforcement agencies also need to have strong internal controls to prevent corruption, along with a culture where officers take pride in following the law.

The accused Windermere cop was brought up on charges of official misconduct in part because the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was concerned that he might not be the only Windermere officer engaging in the alleged unlawful behavior. The FDLE needs to know how widespread the problem is, and it needs to send a message to Windermere and all Florida departments that racial profiling is absolutely unacceptable.

A second Windermere officer is currently under investigation and has been suspended, although not criminally charged. Also, a former chief of police in that city was fired and convicted in 2011 after he allegedly helped cover up a child rape investigation that had been initiated against a friend. While his trial is long past, he was the chief who hired the man currently being accused of making the "Bravo vehicle" stops.

All criminal defendants deserve to be treated as innocent until proven guilty -- even police officers accused of misconduct. If it turns out that this officer was racially profiling motorists, and also that the department's culture promoted that misconduct, what should be done?

Source: Orlando Sentinel, "Windermere cop: I 'was told to stop vehicles based on the color of the driver's skin'," Susan Jacobson, May 18, 2013