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By Contributor David Harland
The Oklahoma Highway Patrol is actively implementing a policy of racial profiling by interpreting a person’s hands being in the air as probable cause for drug searches.
In a traffic stop on January 5, 2018, Rev. Dr. Eric Gill was told to exit his vehicle. When he did, he put his hands in the air as a caution. Immediately, the officer yelled “now, why do you have your hands up, that means you have drugs! Do I need to search the car!?”
Captain Paul Timmons was quoted in defense of this OHP policy, saying “it kind of raises a red flag to law enforcement officers, people get out and instantly throw their hands up.”
But Rev. Dr. Gill didn’t have drugs in his car. Instead, his wife and eleven-month-old child waited and watched as he stepped out of the vehicle.
As a black man, Rev. Dr. Gill says he put his hands in the air to “let the officer know you are not a threat, make him/her feel as comfortable as possible.” He had one goal in mind: ‘just get home to your family.’
For Rev. Dr. Gill, raising his hands seemed like the right thing to do. “It’s what I was taught…it’s what I teach my youth.”
As a youth pastor, he often talks to black kids about how to communicate with police. His goal is to help them improve those interactions, and increase their chances of getting home safely.
His advice is a direct response to the growing number of fatal police shootings where officers mistakenly think the unarmed black or brown victim is reaching for a weapon, such as Amadou Diallo, Caesar Cruz, and Philando Castille. The tragic reality is that for black men and boys interacting with today’s law enforcement, what they do with their hands can mean the difference between life and death.
(Video shows African-American driver reaching for license and is met with bullets by the police officer.)
More than that, Rev. Dr. Gill’s advice to his youth is part of a long-held practice in the black community of educating kids about how to interact with police. In recent years this effort has moved beyond the home, as many community organizations are now hosting police interaction workshops.
This weekend in Tulsa, the organization RacismStinks held an event entitled HomeSafe: Community Training for Police Interactions.
Its founder, Richard Zobon Baxter, says “we tell people to keep their hands visible, and raising your hands is one of the best ways to do that.”
He believes it is a best practice for reducing misjudgments by police. “You often don’t know how visible the officer wants your hands to be. And if they can’t see your hands as clearly as they would like, that can be bad news.”
In this context, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol’s policy of treating hands-in-the-air as probable cause for a vehicle search clearly discriminates against people of color in several ways.
First, it criminalizes a method black and brown folk are actively trained to use to improve interactions with police. By stating those same methods ‘raise a red flag’ for officers, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol has determined, prior to any given traffic stop, that anyone following this training can be viewed as a potential criminal.
Second, it sows confusion and terror in an already tense situation. A person of color with their hands in the air probably believes it to be an act of deference and de-escalation. When the officer then blames them for escalating the situation, they are effectively telling the driver that no good options are available. This could easily increase the level of fear and make the traffic stop more difficult for the person of color to navigate effectively.
This result has common ground with certain forms of psychological abuse, such as gaslighting, which uses misinformation to make the victim question their own memory, judgment or sanity. “When did putting your hands up – a universal sign of surrender – become a message of ‘having drugs?’”, asked Rev. Dr. Gill, “Was there some empirical evidence I didn’t know about?”
Third, this policy will result in disproportionate searches of vehicles belonging to people of color. White people typically don’t voluntarily raise their hands in traffic stops, since they do not live under the threat of disproportionate police violence. Black people are more likely to raise their hands because racially biased policing places them at greater risk.
The Oklahoma Highway Patrol might claim their decisions are not racially motivated because they are made based on the position of the driver’s hands, not the color of their skin. However, this is a situation where the position of the driver’s hands would coincide very closely with their racial identity, making this a policy with a clear racial bias.
Ironically, searching more vehicles owned by people of color would only reinforce the system of racially biased policing that forced them to raise their hands in the first place. The only opportunity to break this cycle is for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol to actively and aggressively revoke its policy of equating the position of one’s hands with probable cause for drug searches.