When the story first broke that a cop had viciously attacked Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in a Brooklyn precinct bathroom on a hot August night in 1997, few in the black community doubted the account. In the white community, many were far more skeptical.
That gap in perceptions about police and how they might behave has emerged as one of the most vexing social issues of the 1990s - threatening the racial harmony of cities and the integrity of the justice system.
From the Rodney King beating in 1991 through the O.J. Simpson trial, the rift has persisted and perhaps even widened - a nagging reminder of the challenge America still faces on race.
The reasons for the gap are complex and deep. Experts say it's based in part on the nation's painful racial history, the well-publicized incidence of excessive use of force against black suspects like Mr. Louima, and the current practice of so-called racial profiling, where skin color has become for some police a criterion to pull over a driver. Minorities sardonically call the offense DWB - driving while black.
These and other possible causes for the "perception gap" will be discussed at a meeting today. The Justice Department is bringing together community and civil-rights leaders, police chiefs, and religious and academic groups in hopes of strengthening police-community relations.
The conclave comes in the wake of a new Department of Justice (DOJ) report that finds while overall satisfaction with law enforcement is high, black Americans are twice as likely as whites to be dissatisfied with police in major metropolitan areas. "There certainly is a perception among too many people in the black community, and other people of color, that they are treated differently," says Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder. "And that perception is important. It affects a police department's ability to be effective."
Stigma of 'driving while black'
Racial profiling lies behind much of the distrust. DWB has been a well-known phenomenon in the black community for many years, but it's been largely invisible in the white community - until recently. Incidents like the admission this spring by the New Jersey attorney general that state troopers routinely engaged in the practice, after denying it for more than five years, have sparked a national reassessment of police practices on highways.
Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a report that compiled studies from 23 states on racial profiling. The most stunning finding, says co-author David Harris of the University of Toledo law school in Ohio, is the pervasiveness of the practice.
"When you gather all of the information together, you see it's happening in all areas of the country, in all kinds of social and geographic locations, and in all kinds of police departments."
The findings mirror a separate study done in Ohio. In four urban areas, blacks were on average twice as likely to get tickets as other races.
The ACLU blames racial profiling, in part, on the war on drugs. While rates of drug use are consistent across the races, police have targeted minority communities, particularly in inner cities. Critics say that feeds a misconception that it's "mostly minorities" who use and sell drugs, which in turn increases the distrust between police and minority communities.
"On the whole, the cities that have a greater percent overall of black residents have a lower overall level of trust in the police," says Jan Chaiken, director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which conducted the DOJ study.
Significantly, police note that the survey found 85 percent of Americans overall are satisfied with their local departments. Only 10 percent of whites were dissatisfied compared with 24 percent of blacks.
"That tells you the broad general public, by a large majority, is satisfied with the performance of their local enforcement agency," says Rich Roberts, of the International Union of Police Associations in Alexandria, Va. "That does not mean there's not room for improvement."
Mr. Roberts says police departments are "constantly striving" to do better. He also contends that so-called racial profiling is a misnomer. "It should be called racial stereotyping, and it's clearly bad police work because the officers will make mistakes if they practice it," he says.
Authorities defend proper profiling as an important investigative tool that looks at a host of subtle and complicated characteristics. Roberts, for instance, says that cops will look for behavioral clues, such as "lying eyes" - a high blink rate or rapid eye movement. They also look for whether suspects refuse to make eye contact, give mumbled answers, or sweat profusely.
But civil-rights activists say that too often police, who are still predominantly middle class and white, look for such signs primarily in black and Hispanic drivers. And that continues to breed resentment of cops.
For more than half of this century, it was police who enforced Jim Crow laws in this country. And that legacy has continued to haunt many blacks even after the civil-rights movement made great legal strides.
A main complaint heard by the 1967 Kerner Commission, which was charged with assessing the causes of a summer of race riots, sounds familiar today: "The stopping of Negroes on foot or in cars without obvious basis." "History and experience have taught people of color that, unfortunately, law enforcement is not a friend to people of color," says the ACLU's Reggie Shuford.
But with the new attention on racial profiling and police brutality, some experts hope the distrust between blacks and police will begin to heal. "I think all of these issues are beginning to resonate together," says Harris. "At least, I hope so."