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Bill Hollinger
Bill Hollinger

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How did it come to be, then, that 35 years later SFC Gerald found himself standing on the side of a dusty road next to a barking police dog, listening to his son weep while officers rummaged through his belongings simply because he was black?




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Racial profiling is based on the premise that most drug offenses are committed by minorities. The premise is factually untrue, but it has nonetheless become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because police look for drugs primarily among African Americans and Latinos, they find a disproportionate number of them with contraband. Therefore, more minorities are arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and jailed, thus reinforcing the perception that drug trafficking is primarily a minority activity. This perception creates the profile that results in more stops of minority drivers. At the same time, white drivers receive far less police attention, many of the drug dealers and possessors among them go unapprehended, and the perception that whites commit fewer drug offenses than minorities is perpetuated. And so the cycle continues.


This vicious cycle carries with it profound personal and societal costs. It is both symptomatic and symbolic of larger problems at the intersection of race and the criminal justice system. It results in the persecution of innocent people based on their skin color. It has a corrosive effect on the legitimacy of the entire justice system. It deters people of color from cooperating with the police in criminal investigations. And in the courtroom, it causes jurors of all races and ethnicities to doubt the testimony of police officers when they serve as witnesses, making criminal cases more difficult to win.


Carl Williams, New Jersey's Chief of Troopers, was dismissed in March 1999 by Governor Christine Todd Whitman soon after a news article appeared in which he defended profiling because, he said, "mostly minorities" trafficked in marijuana and cocaine. Williams' remarks received wide media attention at a time when Whitman and other state officials were already facing heightened media scrutiny over recent incidents of profiling and public anger over police mistreatment of black suspects.


The emergence of crack in the spring of 1986 and a flood of lurid and often exaggerated press accounts of inner-city crack use ushered in a period of intense public concern about illegal drugs, and helped reinforce the impression that drug use was primarily a minority problem. Enforcement of the nation's drug laws at the street level focused more and more on poor communities of color. In the mid- to late-1980s, many cities initiated major law enforcement programs to deal with street-level drug dealing. "Operation Pressure Point" in New York was an attempt to rid the predominantly Hispanic Lower East Side of the drug trade. Operation Invincible in Memphis, Operation Clean Sweep in Chicago, Operation Hammer in Los Angeles, and the Red Dog Squad in Atlanta all targeted poor, minority, urban neighborhoods where drug dealing tended to be open and easy to detect.


In the 1980s, with the emergence of the crack market, skin color alone became a major profile component, and, to an increasing extent, black travelers in the nation's airports and found themselves the subjects of frequent interrogations and suspicionless searches by the DEA and the U.S. Customs Service. These law enforcement practices soon spread to train stations and bus terminals, as well.


In practice, the Whren decision has given the police virtually unlimited authority to stop and search any vehicle they want. Every driver probably violates some provision of the vehicle code at some time during even a short drive, because state traffic codes identify so many different infractions. For example, traffic codes define precisely how long a driver must signal before turning, and the particular conditions under which a driver must use lights. Vehicle equipment is also highly regulated. A small light bulb must illuminate the rear license plate. Tail lights must be visible from a particular distance. Tire tread must be at a particular depth. And all equipment must be in working order at all times. If the police target a driver for a stop and search, all they have to do to come up with a pretext for a stop is follow the car until the driver makes an inconsequential error or until a technical violation is observed.


Of course, media fascination with a social problem does not necessarily make it "real," any more than lack of media coverage makes it nonexistent. But the dozens of stories in the press and on the airwaves, combined with the statistical reports, the lawsuits, and recent legislative action, make a powerful argument that "driving while black" is not just an occasional problem.


In California in 1997, San Diego Chargers football player Shawn Lee was pulled over, and he and his girlfriend were handcuffed and detained by police for half an hour on the side of Interstate 15. The officer said that Lee was stopped because he was driving a vehicle that fit the description of one stolen earlier that evening. However, Lee was driving a Jeep Cherokee, a sport utility vehicle, and the reportedly stolen vehicle was a Honda sedan. (Source: San Diego Union Tribune)


In 1996, two officers in police cruisers followed George Washington and Darryl Hicks as they drove into the parking garage of the hotel where they were staying in Santa Monica. The men were ordered out of the car at gun point, handcuffed and placed in separate police cars while the officers searched their car and checked their identification. The police justified this detention because the men allegedly resembled a description of two suspects being sought for 19 armed robberies and because one of the men seemed to be "nervous." The men filed suit against the officers and the court found that neither man fit the descriptions of the robbers and that the robberies had not even occurred in the City of Santa Monica. (Source: The Los Angeles Times)


In Colorado, officials in Eagle County paid $800,000 in damages in 1995 to black and Latino motorists stopped on Interstate 70 solely because they fit a drug courier profile. The payment settled a class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of 402 people stopped between August 1988 and August 1990 on I-70 between Eagle and Glenwood Springs, none of whom were ticketed or arrested for drugs.


In Indiana, Sgt. David Smith, an African American police officer, was pulled over while driving an unmarked car in the City of Carmel in 1997. Sgt. Smith was in full uniform at the time, but he was not wearing a hat which would have identified him as a police officer. According to a complaint filed with the ACLU, the trooper who stopped Smith appeared to be "shocked and surprised" when Sgt. Smith got out of the car. The trooper explained that he had stopped Smith because he had three antennas on the rear of his car and quickly left the scene. (Source: The Indianapolis Star)


In Maryland, in 1997, Charles and Etta Carter, an elderly African American couple from Pennsylvania, were stopped by Maryland State Police on their 40th wedding anniversary. The troopers searched their car and brought in drug-sniffing dogs. During the course of the search, their daughter's wedding dress was tossed onto one of the police cars and, as trucks passed on I-95, it was blown to the ground. Mrs. Carter was not allowed to use the restroom during the search because police officers feared that she would flee. Their belongings were strewn along the highway, trampled and urinated on by the dogs. No drugs were found and no ticket was issued. The Carters eventually reached a settlement with the Maryland State Police. (Source: The Daily Record)


In Massachusetts, speaker after speaker, including black doctors and lawyers, testified before a legislative committee in April 1999 about being stopped by police officers, apparently because of the color of their skin. The speakers were supporting a bill that would require the state to collect traffic stop statistics to see if blacks were being stopped inordinately. "This is not a new thing for anyone that is black in this city," said Ajibola Osinubi, 44, a native of Nigeria who heads his own advertising and public relations firm in Boston. (Source: Associated Press)


In Michigan last year invited officials African Americans and other minorities to air their grievances about police mistreatment at an all-day forum. Among those telling their stories was Alicia Smith of Oak Park, a 19-year-old African American who was driving to a movie with friends in her hometown when two white officers stopped her without explanation and asked where she was going. "There was no probable cause," said Smith, who wasn't ticketed. "It was just harassment."


In Nebraska, the Omaha Human Relations Board released a series of recommendations last year for improving relations between police and minority communities. Among the recommendations, the Omaha World-Herald reported, were that the Mayor's Office and City Council address complaints that police target minorities for traffic stops and subject them to other forms of harassment. Ron Estes, an African American firefighter, told of visiting a model home in a west Omaha subdivision. Although the homes were closed, Estes told the Human Relations Board that he spoke to a resident of the subdivision for about 30 minutes while sitting in his Chevrolet Blazer. A few days later, he stopped by his fire station to pick up his gear when he overheard an Omaha police officer asking other firefighters questions about his truck, which had a personalized license plate that read BSICBLK. Estes said he later learned that the subdivision resident he had talked with was a police officer who reported his visit as suspicious. Short


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