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Local Column

Eric Olson: 'Black male' does not describe the suspect

The Daily Chronicle will no longer include witness descriptions of crime suspects in news stories when the only physical description offered is a person’s race and gender. An undescribed white man or black man will be simply "a man."

Police should stop propagating such vague race-based information, too. While doing little to actually identify crime suspects, such vagaries can go a long way toward reinforcing negative stereotypes and encouraging racial profiling.

Often, it’s black men who are singled out. Sometimes the crimes being described are made up, leaving black men scapegoated because somebody wants to explain away an embarrassing incident.

The most recent example of this came late last week, when a person who DeKalb police have not named made up a story about how they’d been robbed on a street near the Northern Illinois University campus in the early morning hours of Aug. 28.

NIU police, in a campus alert about the fabricated robbery, recounted the man’s story of being pushed down and robbed by three men. After noting that the alleged victim had scrapes on his arms and legs, and that the suspects ran off in “an unknown direction,” it offered this description of the perpetrators: “The victim described all three suspects as African-American males.”

In other words, he didn’t describe them at all. Not their height, hair, facial features, scars or tattoos. Not the sound of their voice, any jewelry, their body type or any of the many things that make an individual unique. Just that they were black men who could be anywhere.

Have you seen any black men anywhere, Joe Public? Have you looked into their alibis?

Police themselves might have use for this information in building a suspect profile, but even to them, these kind of descriptions can’t be very helpful. How dark does a person’s skin have to be before you’re sure they’re “black,” anyway? What about Latinos? What about white people with a tan? If a person’s so sure they were attacked by black men, shouldn’t they know more than just that?

Last week’s incident wasn’t isolated, either. Police just release this kind of information from time to time.

In November, there were a few false reports of attacks and robberies in the NIU area, including one by a person who police said was trying to hide the fact he’d been robbed in a drug deal in another community.

The description of the suspects in that made-up crime:

“The victim reported to police that two African-American men threatened him with a silver weapon … The men, described as wearing black hoodies and gold Timberland shoes, fled the scene. …. One was taller than the other.”

Right. Be on the lookout for black men traveling in pairs, of varying height, wearing fashionable shoes. If they are wearing hooded sweatshirts, eye them with extra suspicion.

Here’s a description from an April story about suspects in a strong-arm robbery:

“The victim described both suspects as black men wearing black hooded sweatshirts.​ One wore white shoes and the other had ‘odd-shaped eyebrows’ and wore black shoes.”

Got it. If I see a black man in white shoes today, I’ll be sure to dial 911. Or a black man in black shoes. Obviously hooded sweatshirts are a giveaway, and if anyone’s eyebrows strike me as odd – well, not anyone’s, only a black man’s – I’ll be sure to turn them in.

Here’s another, from an armed robbery report from June 2013: “The gunman was 5-feet, 7-inches tall, with a medium build, while the other man was between 6 feet and 6 feet, 3 inches tall with a slender build. Both were black and wearing dark clothing …”.

I think I saw a couple of black guys of average height and weight wearing dark clothing yesterday. Maybe those were the guys.

If you’re not a black man, consider how this must feel. Imagine you’re like most of the other people in your neighborhood, but you look different. Then imagine that local police sometimes release vague descriptions of violent crime suspects that fit you and many of your family and friends.

What if police regularly put out these kind of descriptions:

“The suspect is described as a white woman with a medium build wearing black yoga pants and white gym shoes.”

“Police said a white man, 5-feet 8-inches to 6-feet tall, wearing khakis and a dark-colored polo shirt, brandished a hunting knife and stole the victim’s wallet and cellphone.”

“The victim told police he was attacked by two Asian men. One was taller than the other. One had odd-shaped eyebrows. They wore brown shoes.”

Some police departments, including at the University of Minnesota, don’t use race if it’s the only identifier given of a crime suspect.

Some people castigate them for it. These are white people who rarely see themselves vaguely described in connection with crimes, or if they do, probably never feel the suspicion and stigma it engenders.

If there’s a genuine description of a suspect – something a little better than Brett’s description of Marsellus Wallace in “Pulp Fiction,” – then identifying someone’s race can be relevant. What’s better is a police sketch, which DeKalb police have released before in connection with violent crimes.

However, our news reporting will stop singling out racial groups en masse effective now.

• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email, or follow him on Twitter


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