RACIAL tension, both institutional and personal, remains an obstacle to Toledo’s progress. Only a fool or a bigot (or both) would deny that, despite the considerable progress our community has made in advancing harmonious and productive race relations.
The now-discredited complaint by Toledo City Councilman Larry Sykes that the Toledo Police Department profiled him before and during a traffic stop last month is less an expression of genuine victimization than of Mr. Sykes’ self-importance. It impedes, rather than advances, efforts to address actual local incidents of misconduct rooted in racism.
In a letter to Police Chief William Moton, Mr. Sykes accused two police officers — who are white — of stopping him without justification on South Byrne Road the night of April 24. Although he was not ticketed, Mr. Sykes demanded to know whether the Police Department “allows its officers to randomly stop people without just cause.”
A thorough investigative report by the department’s internal affairs section, released this week, tells a different story. In declaring Mr. Sykes’ complaint unfounded, it observed that he was driving without a front license plate and with an obscured back plate — both violations, albeit minor, of state traffic laws.
The officer who spoke to Mr. Sykes pointed out to him the partially covered rear plate. One of the officers later noted that the tinted windows of Mr. Sykes’ sport-utility vehicle prevented clear identification of its occupants.
The report also concludes that the officer who was the primary target of Mr. Sykes’ complaint did not treat the councilman much differently from other motorists he had stopped in recent months.
Mr. Sykes now concedes that the stop was justified. He insists that his accusation did not include a racial component. But he said in his initial complaint that “I have been profiled so many times and stopped for driving while black.”
In fact, the vanity license plate on his vehicle abbreviates the phrase “for driving while black.” That can be considered a valid form of free expression, to protest what he calls past incidents of being profiled and harassed by police. It also can be considered a provocation.
Self-serving demands for Mr. Sykes’ resignation or recall by groups such as the city police officers’ union are not to be taken seriously. Short of that, the councilman must think carefully about how to place his statements and actions in a more appropriate context.
At a news conference Wednesday, Mr. Sykes said he thought the police report was fair. He offered an apology to the Police Department, and specifically to the officers involved, and expressed a desire to “move forward.” It’s a start.
One positive element of the incident is its demonstration of the value of video cameras in police cars to record traffic stops. The department also is to be commended for releasing the full transcripts of interviews by internal affairs officers with Mr. Sykes and the officers he encountered.
Mr. Sykes’ false accusation of profiling has provided an excuse to change the subject from real examples of racial hostility in this community, and has obscured the efforts by local citizens of good will, of all races, to overcome them. That distraction doesn’t help.
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