Sheriff's `anticrime' program raises concern that blacks are harassed. Police stop blacks traveling through white neighborhoods
An order mandated by a sheriff to routinely stop blacks traveling through white neighborhoods has prompted an outcry of community protest. Sheriff Harry Lee of Jefferson Parish in suburban New Orleans said on Dec. 2 that ``if there are some blacks driving a car late at night in a predominantly white area, they will be stopped.'' Mr. Lee added, ``If you live in a predominantly white neighborhood, and two blacks are in a car behind you, there's a pretty good chance they're up to no good.''
Even though Lee officially withdrew his plan the next day, apologizing for ``inadvertently offending'' blacks, many civil rights and community activists believe the harassment program that has been in effect for most of the past year still exists.
``We've received nearly 60 complaints from black people who said they were stopped unnecessarily by law enforcement officers in the past month,'' said Shirley Porter, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
City councilwoman Wilma Irvin, who represents the city of Kenner in Jefferson Parish, said the times blacks have been stopped in the past three months in Jefferson Parish have been ``too numerous to mention.''
``The sheriff just made it official. I believe it's been an unstated program for quite a while now,'' explained Ms. Irvin. ``I know professional black people who actually live in some of the more exclusive areas, and they've been stopped by the police in their own neighborhoods,'' she added.
Manicured lawns, ranch houses, and swimming pools dot Jefferson Parish, which has a median house value of more than $70,000 - far higher than any other parish in Louisiana.
The area also has one of the lowest percentages of black residents (9 percent, compared to 52 percent in neighboring Orleans Parish), and a strongly conservative constituency. In 1984, President Reagan won more than 77 percent of the vote here.
Lee said his program to stop blacks was not meant as an act of bigotry, but rather as a means to reduce crime. The sheriff said that in November, 90.5 percent of all robberies in Jefferson were committed by blacks, and 73 percent of the victims were white.
The Jefferson Parish sheriff's office also released statistics indicating that murder had increased by 66 percent late this year, compared to the final quarter of 1985, and that robbery was up by 35 percent, followed by burglary at 13 percent.
Black leaders indicated in two recent public forums that they supported a crime-prevention program and police patrolling of high-crime areas. ``The thing we don't like is that this is being done on a racially exclusive basis,'' said an organizer for the NAACP.
Although many area black leaders believe that Lee's program may continue to be carried out unofficially, they think the recent publicity will prompt greater community activism in defense of civil rights.
The NAACP's Porter added that her office will shortly begin to monitor the sheriff's office activities to see if blacks are being harassed.