When a Mashpee police officer shot and killed a Wampanoag man in 1988, the U.S. Department of Justice helped mediate negotiations between town and tribe officials.
Today, the Justice Department is back in town, this time offering cultural awareness training following an alleged incident of racial profiling at a local supermarket.
Deborah Saldana of Mashpee, who is black, said James Lundy, manager of Roche Brothers, almost knocked her to the ground while trying to seize her purse after he accused her of stealing meat from the store. The store has since apologized to Saldana, but company officials said that Lundy denied the assault and profiling allegations.
Following the incident, Saldana claimed that the police officer who responded had falsified his report and that the department refused to help her report the case to the state. Mashpee Police Chief Rodney Collins has denied the report was falsified and said no crime had been committed.
Collins said that Justice Department officials contacted him about free cultural awareness training after they had read articles in the newspaper about the Saldana incident. He said that as long as the agency acknowledged that the training had nothing to do with the Saldana incident, he happily accepted.
"I'm always open to the idea of progressive training, especially when its free," said.
Collins should be commended for accepting the training in the spirit it was offered.
Regardless of whether racial profiling occurred or not, it's incumbent upon police and town officials to turn this incident into a teachable moment.
And that's the intent of two researchers who have weighed in on the case in an opinion piece on the previous page.
Jerome Williams, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Anne-Marie Hakstian, an associate professor at Salem State College, are co-authors of a forthcoming book on consumer racial profiling.
Williams and Hakstian qualified their comments about the case by admitting that they could not say conclusively what occurred in Mashpee since they were not there.
"However, we have enough information about the case to say that what happened to Deborah Saldana is typical of what happens to ordinary people of color day in and day out all over the country...," they wrote.
The researchers then asked whether the incident would have occurred if Saldana had been white. "Research suggests it is highly unlikely..." they wrote. "What happens in many retail establishments is that people of color are put under greater surveillance the moment they walk into the store. This typically is based on a persistent misperception that minorities account for most of the shoplifting...in retail establishments. The reality is that nonminority shoppers account for most of the criminal activity."
Furthermore, neither black nor white shoppers are the ones most responsible for shoplifting. "...Employee theft (44.5 percent) accounts for a far greater percentage of the 'shrinkage' at the nation's 200 largest retailers than shoplifting (32.7 percent)," they wrote.
Records also show that more than two-thirds of the shoplifters apprehended in many areas are white females between the ages of 25 and 50.
"In conclusion, we urge Roche Brothers and other retailers, the police chief and other law enforcement personnel, and citizens of the community not to be so quick to dismiss claims of marketplace mistreatment based on race, such as the allegations presented by Saldana."
But the researchers should have further qualified their remarks by adding: "While consumer racial profiling is prevalent in our society, citizens should not be so quick to blame the police as many did in the case of Sgt. James Crowley and Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates."
In other words, this is a teachable moment not only for police and town officials, but for all of us.
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