Charleston NAACP president Dot Scott to testify in Washington on racial profiling
When a 911 caller reported gunfire in the Ferndale community last month, he didn’t imagine that his description of the shooter would renew claims of racial profiling against the North Charleston Police Department.
The resident, who is black, told a dispatcher that the gunman had dreadlocks in his hair, but in an interview Wednesday with The Post and Courier, he said it could have been “twists, braids or dreads.”
A police officer was acting on that sole description when he decided to stop 17-year-old Carlton Pringle, who has braids, as he walked near the scene.
It is one of the issues that Dot Scott, president of the Charleston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, plans to present to U.S. senators Tuesday when she testifies and lobbies for a bill that would specifically prohibit racial profiling by law enforcement agencies nationwide.
The End Racial Profiling Act would bar “such targeting based on race or ethnic identity,” its sponsor, Sen. Ben Cardin, has said.
Police transmissions, acquired Wednesday through an S.C. Freedom of Information Act request, revealed Pfc. Anthony Dipaolo’s thinking when he spotted Pringle.
“There’s a black male with a white T-shirt and dreadlocks,” Dipaolo said into his radio. “He just turned around and started walking in the other direction.”
The officer gave no indication that he had seen a gun when he started chasing Pringle, but about 10 seconds later Dipaolo opened fire when he said Pringle turned and pointed a handgun.
Pringle received several gunshot wounds and remains hospitalized.
Scott, who has led the Charleston NAACP branch for 12 years, said she was chosen to speak because of her past work on immigration reform. Scott hasn’t decided whether to specifically address Pringle’s case in her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Whether it’s a hoodie or dreads, those things are perceived to identify African-American males,” Scott said. “Whether those people are doing anything illegal or not, officers are stopping them, and that level of profiling can end up being deadly.”
Cardin, D-Md., introduced the End Racial Profiling Act last year, but he said the case of Trayvon Martin in Florida pushed his cause into the national spotlight.
The legislation, Senate Bill 1670, defines racial profiling as law enforcement agents “relying, to any degree, on race ... in selecting which individual to subject to routine or spontaneous investigatory activities,” such as traffic stops or interviews.
The bill states that such a law would open police agencies, officers and their supervisors to lawsuits from victims of profiling. Scott hopes that the fully developed law will have more teeth in allowing victims to seek justice.
“There are a lot of laws that protect the rights of minorities, but they’re not enforced,” Scott said. “They can’t be ignored.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, the ranking member of the subcommittee that Scott will face, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The law would urge police departments at all levels to develop anti-discrimination policies and would require agencies to have such a policy in order to qualify for federal grants.
The North Charleston Police Department, of which Scott has been a longtime critic, developed its policy in 2005 to forbid “police contact based solely on a common trait of a group.” But the document leaves it up to officers to determine whether there is reason to believe a person is connected with a crime.
“I hold the department accountable to follow our” policy, Chief Jon Zumalt said in a statement Wednesday, declining to answer further questions.
As for the 911 caller, he insisted that Pringle fit the description of the shooter. The caller, who asked not to be identified because he feared retribution, applauded the police department’s tactics in fighting crime.
“If you’ve run into the police before, they’re going to remember your face. They’re going to know you’re dressed in a certain way or have your hair a certain way,” he said. “There’s no racial profiling. They’re not harassing anyone.”
The bullets started flying, he said, as a result of an altercation over cigarettes among more than a half-dozen black teenagers.
When the shooting subsided, the group split and went separate ways. An officer stopped and started speaking with “maybe nine” of them north of the scene when Dipaolo encountered two, including Pringle, to the south, according to their radio communications.
Since the shooting, the caller said he won’t venture onto the streets at night. He’s more fearful now than ever, he said.
“There’s too much crime,” he said. “Little kids are standing at the corner store selling drugs. You’d be surprised how many of those little kids walk around with guns.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.