My Experience With Profiling

24 July, 2009

As I read different  posts regarding the incident between Harvard Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department, I keep seeing references to profiling.  In the interest of fairness, I might as well tell you about my personal experience with profiling.

Back in 1985, I spent a couple of weekends up in New England looking at colleges (I had decided I wanted to go to a small college, in a smaller town, in New England, within day trip distance to Boston, and near a good ski area).  At the time, my vehicle was a 1970 Volkswagen Microbus Transporter.  At the time, I also dressed in (normally) tie-dyes, a ponytail, and a Greek fisherman’s cap. 

As I traveled through Western Massachusetts on the Turnpike, I spent a great deal of time in 3rd gear at 35 miles per hour as I struggled up the hill.  With the flashers on.  Watching fully loaded tractor-trailers pass me.

As I went up one hill, I popped out my cassette of Wynton Marsalis playing Hadyn’s Trumpet Concerto in E minor and slid in the Door’s Greatest Hits.  And jammed the volume way up (to overcome the sound of the VW engine, I had a 400-watt system in the Microbus). I lit my pipe (some nice black Cavendish tobacco).   And noticed the flashing lights of a Massachusetts State Trooper.

I swore.  Then I doused the flashers, signalled, and pulled over.  He walked up to the vehicle and leaned down to look in the window.  Yes, he leaned downto look into the window of a VW Microbus.  This guy was huge.  No neck.  Firm jaw.  No fat.  I silenced the music.

He asked for my license, registration and insurance.  I handed it over.  I sat in the bus and finished my pipe.

He disappeared for fifteen minutes as he called in my information.  Then he walked back up and asked where I was going (Brunswick, ME), where I had been (at friends in Russell, MA), was there anything in the vehicle which he should know about (no).  Then he asked permission to search my vehicle.

“Why?” I asked.

“Do I have permission to search your vehicle?” He asked again.

“Why?” I repeated.

“Kid, you have a choice.  You can give permission to search your vehicle, or I can, in about one hour, get a warrant from a judge, and we can search your vehicle without your permission. But it will take three hours.  Which will it be?”

“Officer,” I stated, “I have neither given nor denied permission.  I am asking why you wish to search my vehicle?”

“Well, kid, I think you have grass in there.  You look like you smoke grass.  You smell like you smoke grass.  And no nineteen-year-old kid smokes a pipe.”

I gave permission for the search.  Three more vehicles showed up.  I sat on a Jersey barrier while they emptied my vehicle.  I was amazed at how much trash I had accumulated.  They pulled out the front seat and checked the spare tire.  They pulled out the back seat and were quite surprised to find a 70 gallon fuel bladder (the guy who rebuilt the bus (out of three others) didn’t like to stop for gas) and debated slicing it open.  They searched places which I did not know existed.

The only thing they found was a mouse nest with two live baby mice and three adult (live) mice.

He did not apologize for the two hour delay.  He did tell me to turn my music down.

I got pulled over three more times on that trip.  When I went to college driving a Nissan Sentra (and with short hair), I never got pulled over.  Even when speeding.

In retrospect, I suppose I fit a profile for, at the least, a recreational drug user.  The Microbus, the ponytail, the tie-dye shirt, the Greek fisherman’s cap, the pipe, the Doors.  If I had set out to look like a sixties holdover marijuana smoker I doubt I could have done any better.

Profiling may not be fair.  Profiling is often racist.  Profiling can also be accurate.  Maybe not right, but accurate.

Looking back, I am proud that I kept my cool.  Scared shitless, but I didn’t do anything stupid.

I miss that red VW Microbus.  And yes, I did have a rake and a shovel in the back (big vehicle, why empty it when I was the only one going on the trip).



  1. We have three observations about the Harvard professor incident:

    1. We find it interesting that the fact that this was the professor’s home was evidently not established early on way before the dispute escalated;

    2. We find it fascinating that the versions of two members of society, who most would ordinarily view as responsible and honest citizens (this obviously does not include politicians), would vary so dramatically from a factual point of view.

    3. Finally, considering that the reading and viewing public were not present at the scene (and thus have no first hand knowledge), and that there is no video tape to our knowledge of the sequence of events and what was said, how so many have formed conclusions, and made assumptions, about who did what and who was wrong.

    There are some things which Professor Gates might have considered upon the arrival of the police, no matter how incensed he may have been.

  2. Who is this “we”?

  3. Reggie:

    The police officer has given two versions regarding when the escalation began — before or after he ascertained that Professor Gates was in his own home. This is perfectly understandable and normal in a stress situation.

    It is perfectly understandable that two people involved intimately with a situation will remember two contradictory versions. This is what happens in stressful situations.

    And you are correct. We do not know who said what and, as it was a stressful situation for all involved, we will never know. Eyewitness testimony in court can be useful, but it is notoriously unreliable.

    That said, and I agree with Craig, who is ‘we?’

  4. I’ve both been a victim of and have exploited profiling. When I drove a canary yellow screaming fast (and loud) Camaro, I got a lot of tickets. When I later switched to a beat up blue Prelude, I didn’t, even though I didn’t change my driving habits a bit (in fact, I think I got “worse” since the Prelude’s maneuverability opened up all new opportunities for “worse”). Now with a blue Matrix, I don’t think I warrant consideration at all by cops looking to reach their speeding ticket quota. In fact, I generally like sticking near the flashy sports cars because they’ll be the ones pulled over (and yes, I’ve experienced this many times).

    In my long hair days, if I got into a scuffle at a bar, the cops would bring me to the station. Now clean cut, I got into one with a bouncer and the cops just sent me on my way, without even a frisking.

    I don’t entirely find fault with the system. The secret is knowing how to game it, and when you choose to buck it, know the risks and don’t get pissed if you lose. Of course race isn’t a choice, but again, know how to game it. What I object to in the Gates issue is how, imo, he chose to game the system and also, Obama’s gaming it, too. The system, imo, is necessary.

  5. Philly: I think that profiling, be it racial, dress, hair style, car, etc., has its place. If definately helps the police do their jobs. On the other hand, profiling can also be used to show the police officer’s disapproval of certain ethnic groups, lifestyles, or choice of car. I guess like any tool it can be heavily abused.

    By becoming ‘main stream’, are we gaming it? I’ll be honest — I can get away with speeds in a minivan that would get a sports car pulled over. I’ve seen it. Gaming the system helps the system work, I guess.

    And did you ever think that the cops leave you alone now because you are a geezer?

    • They go after Philly because of the feathers.

      Doesn’t this whole profiling discussion fail because profiling isn’t accurately defined? Its meaning floats, depending on who’s making the argument. Or perhaps it’s about degree. If a set of cops consistently stops men who are black, but otherwise have no commonality, that suggests pure profiling in the negative sense. If the set of cops consistently stop black men dressed in gang garb in known gang areas, is that profiling in the negative sense?

      It strikes me that the weakness of profiling is that it depends on the stupidity of real criminals, in that the process depends on gang members, for example, not wearing ties and pressed shirts and pants and not bragging their tattoos and so on. An Islamic terrorist in New York City isn’t going to walk around in traditional Islamic garb. Shirt, tie, clean shoes, raincoat, boom!

  6. Maybe. Now that I’ll be a professor, I’ll have to try the “you don’t know who you’re messing with” line. 🙂

  7. Philly: And then the cop looks at you and says, “A geezer?” What then?

    A few years ago (shit. a decade ago), (((Wife))) and I had to report an accident. The little kid who wrote up the report looked like he was eleven. If that. Is it a sign that we’re getting old when the state troopers look like little kids?

  8. I still dont get the reasoning behind arresting a man, in his own home, for disorderly conduct. I suppose i dont know enough about this case, but i watched the interview with the cop, and it seemed to me that Gates followed the cop on the way out of his house, calling him names and yelling at him, and the cop got pissed, and arrested him. In think that the officer knew the charges were going to be dropped, but did it anyway to show gates who’s boss.

    Not cool. you dont arrest a guy for being disorderly in his own home. He didnt get physical, or threaten the arresting officer’s safety, as far as i can tell. Should one fear arrest for saying dirty words in ones own home, if a cop is present?

  9. One Labor Day weekend, when the deacon and I were in college, there were four of us driving back to school from Canada to Kentucky: the deacon, me, deacon’s sister and a friend of ours. We got to US Customs and the guy asked if we had any booze in the car. We answered, no, we did not. He looked at four 20-something college kids, figured we had to be lying, and told us to get out of the car. He and some other customs agents took everything out of the car, searched it, found nothing, then sent us on our way. We got a laugh out of the epic profiling fail.

  10. You should have just told the cop that you were on the way to visit your good friend Alice who lives in the bell tower of a nearby church with her husband Ray and Fatcha the dog for a thanksgiving dinner that just couldn’t be beat and told him all about the twenty seven eight by ten color glossy photographs with the circles and arrows and the paragraph on the back of each oen…

  11. My husband gets the pleasure of DWB (driving while brown). He is a large polynesian man. When he drove a small pontiac car he got pulled over a lot. Now he drives a big jeep commander with the darkest tint we could legally get. He doesn’t get pulled over so much any more. Probably too tall and too dark to see him.

    In 2001 when he was t-boned by a young white guy and it was early in the morning so no witnesses. The cops said they couldn’t decide who was at fault. (Both said they had a green light). Even though the guy who hit my husband was driving on a suspended license for repeat DUI and no insurance. I’m betting if my husband had been the one on the suspended license he would have been hauled off to jail right then and there.


    We have seen both sides.

    One of our best friends is a little blond haired, blue eyed white guy. He works for the gang task force. He tells us all the time about how some of the polynesian gang members he has arrested have said he was being racist. All he wants to be able to do is tell them one of his best friends IS polynesian, but he can’t. So he deals with their unfound anger.

    I think both the professor and the cop were being dumb-asses.

    • Pontiac? No wonder. I used to know a white guy with long hair and a beard who drove a Bonneville. He got pulled over a lot, because that’s a black car. Combine that with the appearance and you have drugs. Of course it didn’t help that he smoked Newports. 😉

  12. Ric: Profiling works The question then becomes what you actually want profiling to do. If you want profiling to prevent crimes and catch criminals, not too effective. If your goal is to stop certain behaviours (not cutting hair, driving certain cars, driving while brown) it may not be totally effective, but it can change how people act.

    Philly: One of the problems with the phrase, “You don’t know who you are messing with,” (aside from being grammatically incorrect) is that it carries an explicit threat to the officer’s career. Never a good idea with anyone.

    Quixotic: Again, officers are supposed to control situations. Right or wrong, the officer used the arrest as an effective way to gain control and keep things from getting worse. I really cannot make it plainer. If you want further information, I would suggest talking to a police officer.

    Chappie: So where was the booze hidden?

    Lifey: I had that tape in the car and, as I drove away, I popped it in and enjoyed Alice’s Restaurant Masacree with full orchestration and four part harmony. I actually prefer the Pickle song.

    Poodles: A friend of ours had a car turn left in front of them. No stoplight or stop sign, the car just turned left in front of them into a driveway. The left-turning car was driven by a middle-aged white man. The car driven by our friend t-boned the white guy’s car. My friend is black. He got charged with failure to yeild and the accident went in as his fault. He got a good lawyer, as did his insurance company and, because he got photos before the cars were moved, won.

    I agree, though, that both Gates and Crowley blew it. I may not approve of Crowley’s solution, his method of controlling the situation, but I don’t necessarily approve.

    Philly: And the quickest way to get police abuse? Put a Chief’s sticker on your car and then driving around Philly.

    • There’s a Chiefs bar in Philly, you know. They did a piece on it years ago one ESPN.

      I’m safe as long as they don’t beat the Eagles. 😉

      Incidentally, here’s how a Chiefs fan gets respect in Philly…
      A few years back I went to a bar to watch the game. The bartender reluctantly switched one of the channels for me to see the game, a big Chiefs-Broncos match. After awhile, the bartender and some others asked why I gave a damn, especially with the Chiefs having no shot at the playoffs. I explained that it was a bitter rivalry, so anytime they play it matters but this was especially important because the Chiefs had a chance to cock-block the Broncos, crashing their dreams of the playoffs. Everyone paused for a moment, and then the bartender said, “I can respect that” and gave me a free beer. They all celebrated that Chiefs victory, btw, because in Philly, they know all about how if you can’t make it, drag others down with you.

      Now of course if the Chiefs beat the Eagles in September, I’ll be a marked man.

      • I’m safe as long as they don’t beat the Eagles.

        They won’t, but I hope they do. It’ll help the deadskins. ‘Course, that means the Chefs also play the Deadskins. Will anyone (other than DC or KC fans) even bother to watch?

        I’ve found that when I encounter hostility because of my sports preferences, I explain that it is genetic (Mom from Boston, Dad from DC) and all is cool.

        Go Patriots. Go Redskins.

  13. Billy:

    Speak for yourself. Me, I don’t want a pickle… I just want to ride on my motor-sickle…

  14. Ah, but have you ever come in from London, over the pond, flying in a big airliner? Flying into Los Angeles, bringing in a couple of keys?

    • Ah, you lost me on that one, Billy!

      • One of Arlo Guthries three ‘hits’, along with Alice’s Restaurant and City of New Orleans, was a song called Coming into Los Angeles.

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