Palm Beach News

Black Law Professor Recounts Palm Beach Racial Profiling in the Atlantic

Even though George Zimmerman is back on the streets, pulling a surprise Superman act, the predictable fallout from this month's trial in the Trayvon Martin shooting has set in: once again, Florida's the national ashtray. All your late night TV jokes, bitter speculation and serious commentary, stick it to us.

And while a lot of it is forgettable, it's hard to tune out the hardest-hitting criticism, the stuff that makes you cringe about your Sunshine State affiliation. Case in point: yesterday the Atlantic posted a gut-punching story about an African American man's brush in South Florida with racial profiling.

Three years ago, Syracuse University law professor Kevin Noble Maillard was at a legal conference in Palm Beach. Staying at the historic, rich-boy play pen The Breakers, Maillard decided to go for a bike ride one night. He was pedaling through the pleasant South Florida evening, minding his own business, when suddenly a blaring police car swung into view. The roll-up was so abrupt the academic flew off his bike.

The first policeman steps out of the car. "Where are you headed?" I tell him I'm on a bike ride. "Why so late?" I say I like it late. "What are you doing here?" I tell him I'm a law professor attending a conference at The Breakers.

At this point, I'm still thinking about my lonely, abandoned doll of a bike on the ground. Then the second policeman approaches. "We've had some robberies here."

I'm incredulous at what's being suggested. Robberies? On a bike? On a rental bike? How am I supposed to fit a Sony flat screen on the back of a Huffy? Or plan my jewel heist at the mercy of a functioning kickstand? And do I really fit the profile? I've just spent the day with people who live (live!) for subject-matter jurisdiction. And what does it matter if it is after midnight? There are no martial-law curfews in Palm Beach.

Eventually, the cops came back and cleared Maillard to go. The professor continued to bike around the area. But before he gets far -- you knew this was coming, didn't you Florida? -- Maillard was pulled over again by a different police officer.

I told him that I had been stopped twice in a matter of minutes, within .25 miles of each other, with a total of three cars, for being suspected of burglary while on a bicycle. Then I politely ask him to call his colleague who had stopped me only 3 minutes before -- albeit on the other side of the bridge -- to send out an APB that there was a dark bicyclist on Palm Beach. He said that was unnecessary.

The piece is getting passed around the web, and already has over 200 comments on the original article. But the Maillard's story shouldn't just blend in with the rest of the white noise coming off the Trayvon outrage. For one, this isn't the first time Palm Beach has been hit with accusations about racial profiling. If anything, his story is an anecdotal Exhibit B to recent studies.

Last month, the ACLU released a study on the disparity between the arrest rates of blacks and whites when it comes to marijuana possession. The cold facts found that between 2001 and 2010, African Americans in Palm Beach per capa were 4.8 times more likely to be charged for weed than whites. The numbers were significantly higher than Broward, where the ACLU found blacks were 3.7 times more likely to face prosecution. Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw has denied a law enforcement focus on minorities.

But talk about racial profiling has also steadily come out of the system itself. Below you'll find a video of Judge Barry M. Cohen openly blasting local law enforcement for harassing minorities. "I see this on an everyday basis in my courtroom, I hear the stories from friends and neighbors," the judge said at a 2009 forum.

Such unvarnished straight-talk landed Cohen in trouble with the bar just last October.

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Kyle Swenson
Contact: Kyle Swenson