June 21, 2015

Grains of Salt: Toby Shelley's Poor Choice of Words

A little bit of this or that, from the Salt City and around Central NY:

Toby Shelley, former candidate for Sheriff, had been chosen to run against Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney on both the Democrat and Conservative lines, with party members from both sides on board to help him obtain the signatures needed to get on the ballot.

In a Syracuse New Times interview, Shelley was asked about the Conservative Party's platform, which the writer noted includes a plank supporting police profiling. Shelley indicated he wasn't aware of that plank, and then clearly noted that that racial profiling was always wrong, but defended police profiling.

In trying to explain the difference, he gave a very poor illustration. He used the example of one of Onondaga County's smaller towns, and said this:
For example, out in Marcellus, a community that is mostly Caucasian, if you see someone who looks different, you might just stop and talk to them, ask how they're doing. 
The answer was inarticulate at best, and politically incorrect, to be sure.  And, not surprisingly, the Dems backed away and are no longer supporting him; the Conservatives are standing behind him. at least for now, and I expect that support from the party leaders will continue.

I'm not sure there is a politically correct way to answer the question, other than to stop, and not pass go, and not collect $200, immediately after saying that racial profiling is wrong. I'm afraid that any attempts to differentiate between pure racial profiling and police profiling would have fallen on deaf ears or would have landed anyone right where Shelley landed: in hot water.

Had it been me, and I was thinking clearly and not doing something else when the interviewer called ("working on my family farm" is what Shelley indicated he was doing), I would hope I could offer something like this:
I admit there can be fine line between racial profiling, which is wrong, and police profiling, which is a critical tool we have to prevent crime from occurring, instead of waiting to respond to a crime that is in progress or, more often, discovered well after the fact.   
For example, say you have a neighborhood of mostly older folks, very well tended neighborhood, nice cars and whatnot, where you patrol regularly. You're on shift in that neighborhood, and you see a couple of poorly maintained pickup trucks pull up, and young men get out of the trucks and start going from house to house, knocking on doors. Sometimes they get let in, sometimes they don't get past the door, sometimes no one's home and they move on to the next house. 
 If the men getting knocking on some of the doors were white and those knocking on other doors were black, and as a police officer you ignored the white guys but not the black guys, you'd be racially profiling.
If you talked to both groups, who 'looked different' and were 'acting differently' from everyone in the neighborhood (which is very well known to you as you patrol there regularly), even though to your knowledge no crime had been committed, you'd be police profiling
And, more importantly, you'd be doing exactly what everyone in that neighborhood wants you to do, what their tax dollars pay for, whether they're Democrats or Republicans or Conservatives or anything else. 
And, I further hope that I'd have the wherewithal to ask the reporter whether, in his heart of hearts, he had ever racially profiled anyone or whether he could provide 100% assurance that he never would. Because I think it happens more often than people (of any political stripe) admit. Here's an example.

Say you're a white person walking alone in downtown Syracuse, in the early evening. No one else on the block, and all of a sudden, a group of  black teenagers is behind you, whispering and laughing, and they begin to follow you. You go into a store, maybe grab a cup of coffee and a lottery ticket, kill some time, and then go back about your business, heading on to your destination. And there the teens are, half a block up, and they fall in behind you again when you walk by.

Across the street, you see a group of white teens, about the same number of kids as the group that's following you. You don't know any of them; they're dressed the same and acting exactly the same as the group behind you. And your destination is on the side of the street you're on now.

If you cross the street to where the white kids are, are you guilty of racially profiling? Of course you are, right? You made a decision and took action using no factors other than race.

And people, even liberal democrats, do this kind of thing all the time. Like when whites sit with the white person on the bus, when there's an equal choice to sit with a person of color, or when they call the police because a 'suspicious' (black) person  is wandering around their (white) neighborhood.

We ask our neighborhood watch groups to do this, to look out for the person who is not part of the neighborhood, or we'll send one of the neighbor men over to 'check things out' if a stranger happens to pass through. The crux of the issue, the determining factor in whether it's racial profiling or something else, depends on what happens next and whether everyone would be treated the same under the same circumstances.

Toby Shelley responded to the New Times article in social media post. In part, he noted:
Let me be clear: I have never racially profiled. I do not advocate racial profiling, nor would I tolerate racial profiling.  Anyone I have encountered over my decades-long career of public service would attest to this fact. If I supported such policies and were a career politician like Ms Mahoney, I could have refused or attempted to dodge (the reporter's) question. Instead I chose to respond from a police perspective. As police officers we are trained to make observations and respond to suspicious behavior, not make make assumptions based on the color of one's skin. 
I met and talked with Toby Shelley when he was running for Sheriff last year. I believe what he said in his post, and have no reason to doubt his sincerity.  I'm afraid, though, that we will not see him on the Dem line on the ballot - we'll see a blank space. Worse, if the Conservative party members (as opposed to the party leadership) respond they way they did in the race for Sheriff, we may not see him on the Conservative Party line either. (In that race, Shelley lost in a primary to a write-in candidate, eventual winner Republican Gene Conway, because he was not Conservative enough).

If that's the case, it would be a shame.

We all benefit when we have a choice between at least two legitimate candidates for a political office. None of us benefit when elected officials, including the County Executive, the District Attorney and others well entrenched at the highest levels of local government, (and not term limited), run unopposed.

And only a handful of people benefit when a good guy get tossed aside simply for a poor choice of words.