How Police Profiling Can Go Wrong

In a recent civil case, a San Jose police officer was found liable for using excessive force on Danny Piña, who was misidentified as a gang member. Piña was wearing a red shirt and police stopped him for riding a bike with a missing headlamp. According to a local newspaper, the jury found that the officer, Allan De La Cruz, used excessive force when he broke Piña’s nose and dislocated his shoulder.

The police officer said Piña resisted arrest, but testimony from neighbors and expert testimony from a former LA police Lieutenant persuaded the jury that the force was unnecessary.

I have a 16-year-old son who is Latino. Ever since he was young, I wouldn’t allow him to wear red, because it was the chosen color of the San Jose neighborhood gang where we lived. Besides not wearing red, I also cautioned him about hanging out in places that might be seen as gang areas. Last year, gang violence resulted in an increase in the city’s murder rate.

When the Marketplace shopping center on Coleman Avenue opened, it became his favorite place to go. To get there, he had to cross over Guadalupe Parkway, and he often walked along the Guadalupe River Trail.  One day, a police officer stopped him and asked what he was doing there, if he was homeless and if he was undocumented and living on the river. My son doesn’t even speak Spanish, so this seemed like a far-fetched pretext for stopping him.  Always polite to adults, he followed the officer’s request to prove he wasn’t homeless by showing the officer the contents of his daypack, including a receipt from Target to prove he had been shopping.

I only heard about this interaction months later, when I suggested he walk along the Guadalupe River Trail as a direct route to the Caltrains station from our house and he refused. When I pressed him for the reason, he told me about the incident with the police officer.  He believes that he will be stopped again if he walks there. 

I share this experience because it is a common one with young Latino and African American males in San Jose neighborhoods that have a gang presence. Many of our youth from Bill Wilson Center have talked about how they have been stopped and questioned when walking or riding their bikes downtown. I’m sure that our police officers condemn the behavior of Allan De La Cruz and any other police officer who is out of control like this, but there must be a better way to police our community than stopping and questioning so many youth under the pretext that they may be a gang member. 

Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth.


  1. The police cannot ONLY stop people who are guilty of a crime.  They must be able to conduct investigations and those investigations often start with consent or reasonable suspicion.

    You son was (presumably) not guilty of anything, and therefore went on his way.  Perhaps he FELT targeted or even accused of being homeless, but that’s beside the point.  The police act within the law 99% of the time.  You complain about him being stopped for nothing but did you consider how many criminals were found or crimes stopped by these types of stops?  You act as if the cops should have a 100% stop and arrest percentage.

    Perhaps you should talk with your son about how the system worked correctly and he has nothing to fear, instead of making excuses for his feeling of harassment and trying to garner attention.  Your son committed no crime and walked away after being vetted as such- our system works Sparky. I agree that your son shouldn’t feel threatened by contact by contact with the police.  He most likely is scared of the cops because all you do is rail against them, professionally and I’m sure personally as well.  You should teach him he has nothing to fear unless he becomes a criminal- that Sir, is good parenting.

    Now get back to making excuses for the ACTUAL criminals you take into your center, who should be Juvenile Hall.  I know it’s lucrative business, keep up the advocating pal.

  2. I have the answer. Police should not stop ANYONE! This is what people want.Society continues to coddle all the misfits. Well let them be and let them run amok and kill each other… If gang bangers are killing each other then so be it… Its the evolution of life. As long as there is an ambulance service to run these people to Regional Medical Center where they will be saved than the homicide rate may stay on average with last year. Cops are in a no win situation in SJ. NO MATTER what good work is done it will always be overshadowed by the same tired whining activist groups with an agenda. Cops just let it burn… People do not care its all about the bottom dollar. The citys fiscal mess is your fault. Just react to the calls that come out. Gangbangers out there listen up! Its open season you should do as you want. The people of san jose will help each other as they dont really want the police. Time to get a gun and protect your homestead.

  3. “… and any other police officer who is out of control…”

    Apparently you never let a little thing like your own ignorance get in the way of slandering a police officer who has been charged with no crime. The very idea that a police officer—even one who might have erred in his use of force, can be assumed to have been “out of control” is asinine. You obviously believe that appropriate force is something that comes packaged and pre-measured for officers to administer, like a dose of medicine. But it doesn’t; the people who draw the attention of police officers are neither easily diagnosed nor predictable, and mistakes are an inescapable part of the job. A little too much force will get you condemned, while not enough just might get you buried. Put police work under a microscope and the only cops who will escape criticism will be those who never do anything.

    And how safe then will our sons be from gangs?

        • He was respectful and civil, yes, but he was still stopped, questioned, and made to feel different because of his race. Being afraid to walk along the Guadalupe River Trail is not “unscathed”.

        • You’re claim that he was stopped “because” of his race is an unfounded stretch. It’s not based upon any fact or information but rather only your own myopic perspective. Under your criteria, anyone ever stopped is stopped solely based on race, which any reasonable person knows, is ridiculous. He was so traumatized as to feel unsafe? Really? Because the officer used excessive force when speaking to him?
          If the officer talked to 20 people in the creek area that day and 20 were latino, does that mean the officer is racist or that the area is highly populated with latinos?

        • If he was not stopped because he was latino, why was he stopped? Under YOUR criteria, it’s acceptable for a police officer to stop any person who hasn’t done anything wrong and question them like they’ve committed a crime. That’s called a police state. Maybe you think it happens to white people just as often as it does to hispanic or black people, but that’s not true.

        • Answer your first question before you jump to conclusions or make assumptions.
          Remember, it’s better to be thought of as a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

          Since you don’t know why he was stopped, then you’re just making uninformed accusations.

          Are you aware that the guadalupe creek is home to several wanted fugitives and drug dealers? Are you aware of how many sexual assaults have occurred along that creek trail? No, you’re not. In YOUR HIGHLY ENTITLED WORLD, only law abiding “harmless” people occupy that area right?

          By the way, in this free country, the police, like any private citizen, have the right to initiate a conversation with anyone. Any informed person knows that.

        • Unless Sparky’s story is untrue, the officer stopped his son for no reason. If you’re trying to make the argument that the teenager did something to arouse the suspicion of the cop, then you’re arguing with the given facts or raising some hypothetical situation.

          Unless Sparky’s article is very misleading, we know that the teen was stopped without reasonable suspicion. You can argue that it’s impossible to prove it was specifically because of his race, but that’s true with any incident of racial profiling. Because of that, your argument to prove that this was not racial profiling is not falsifiable, and therefore void.

          It’s true, I can’t prove he was stopped specifically for his race. But I know that racial profiling exists in San Jose (If you disagree, that’s an entirely different argument, but a rather unreasonable one to make), and stopping a latino teenager, questioning him, and checking his backpack without reasonable suspicion of a crime committed definitely sounds like racial profiling. If you disagree, then I’d be interested to hear what you do define as racial profiling.

          But you don’t seem to take the effects of racial profiling seriously. You might mock the teenager because he was hurt by the cop’s “excessive force when speaking to him,” but I find your dismissal rather immature. A teenage boy afraid of being treated unfairly by the police is not funny, but it is the unfortunate consequence of a police force who think it is okay to constantly treat minorities as possible-criminals. Racial profiling corrodes trust between minority communities and police communities, and the story of a law-abiding teen who now goes out of his way to avoid the police is indicative of that growing divide.

        • The point is YOU DON’T KNOW WHY SPARKYS SON WAS SPOKEN TO AND NEITHER DOES SPARKY. Never once in the story do I see SPARKYS son claiming that the officer told him that he was stopping him because he looked like an undocumented homeless person.

          What Sparky probably overlooked to teach his son was the premise that as a citizen, he has the right to ask the officer exactly why he is being “stopped” (hopefully, in a civil manner) just as I hope the Officer treated his son. Perhaps Sparky’s son and his clients, could benefit from some serious civics lessons. You’re welcome to join too.

          What you fail to consider are all the other possibilities and instead run to the shelter of “racial profiling”’ when in fact you don’t know. And neither does Sparky or his son apparently.

          To cast aspersions and sanctimoniously claim that other people don’t take the effects of racial profiling seriously is irresponsible, but expected based on some of your earlier blanket statements.

          Only an absolute ostrich would think that racial profiling doesn’t exist. One need only look at countless historical incidents of a largely “white” police forces committing egregious acts of racial based policing, however, you can’t realistically apply that metric across the board here in San Jose where the department’s Majority are in fact it’s Latin, black, and Asian officers. 

          One point that’s not really pertinent in spirit but more so for YOUR broad claim is to know what race the officer was that spoke to SPARKYS son? Does it change the perspective? The incident? The outcome? Or does the officer lose his racial identity when he dons the

          Sincerely, tell me what segment of teen America “likes” the cops.

          I can understand your naivety. Its easy to dismiss your confusion as lack of sophistication and experience but everyone has the capability to learn.

          Being idealistic really helps you overcome some of the many obstacles put in your path.

          How do I know this? Because I was that Latino teenager getting ” stopped”by the cops whle hanging around the trail. And I remember being “pissed off” and angry that the cops stopped me and “shook me down” but after that “non Latino” Officer checked my pockets and asked me if I was carrying anything illegal, he let me go, with an introduction on who he was, and why he wanted to talk to me.  His simple explanation educated me, because I really had no idea what the cops were actually doing in those areas and the parks and like most teenagers, thought I knew it all. So I asked him “why me”? And he told me, politely, that he was working that area because there were several recent robberies on the trail involving a kid my age (14 at the time) and a gun and it was his job to find them. He explained that all he did to me was walk up and start talking to me like any other person. He explained that legally, I had the right to ask but emphasized to me how important it was for me to cooperate first, then ask questions later. He illustrated to me the importance of knowing my rights and when to apply them and it also taught me to seek answers, and more so, not to be AFRAID of the police because what happened was not traumatic or frightening, but rather left me feeling more safe, knowing that there were people out there trying to catch the real “bad boys”

          Did I seek out the police after that. Heck no, I avoided em like the plague forever. I was never naive enough to believe that some cop wouldn’t write me a speeding or jaywalking ticket if I was out of line. But it never boiled down to race, it boiled down to behavior.

          I’ve had several contacts with the police over the years, and like any segment of society, there have been ” personalities”but one thing they have been in San Jose is Diverse.

          Profiling claims in this immigrant city are unsustainable. Everyone an officer stops, depending on the neighborhood, can claim to have been profiled. You have to recognize that at the intersection of Tully and Mcglaughlin, half the people contacted will be Vietnamese, and half will be Latino. Is every Caucasian officer suddenly racially profiling every time they “stop” someone in that area?

          You see, you are so quick to point out the obvious historical plight of minorities vs police, but you fail to recognize the societal shifts that exist in the “real” world here.

          There are many variables as to why you may interact with the police, but trying to READ the cops mind and claim to know his subjective intent is really unconscionable.

          You claim that racial profiling corrodes trust between “minority communities and police .” and therein lies your greatest error. In San Jose, there is no difference in these “communities” and your polarizing attitude only perpetuates any corrosion. My police force is made up of “minorities” and its inconceivable how anyone could observe otherwise.

          The story of a law abiding teen going out of his way to avoid the police is human nature. We all “avoid” the police. We hope we never need them, but I’m glad to know they’re there.

          Think about it, really. And then teach your kids, that making broad claims is reckless and unreliable.

          Law abiding people recognize the need for the police. Responsible citizens usually interact positively with the police and are engaged enough to complain or seek answers if they feel their rights have been violated. You have an obligation to know your rights. Sparky has an obligation to teach his son as well, that the real way to get where he’s going is to seek what he doesn’t understand not try to go out of his way to avoid it so people like you can construe their ignorance as a “growing divide”

          Once again, I have to point out, that’s true of every instance of racial profiling. You can never get inside the officer’s head. Even if Sparky’s son DID ask the cop why he stopped him, if the cop really did stop him because he was latino, do you honestly think the cop would admit to it? Under your definition it’s impossible to prove any instance of racial profiling. However, when a cop stops a latino to find out if he’s a homeless vagrant without any credible reasoning, it sure does sound like racial profiling. You can argue that I have no exact proof that the cop stopped him for his race, but that’s true about every instance of racial profiling, except for the very rare cases where the police officer admits he stopped a pedestrian because of their race.

          “In San Jose, there is no difference in these “communities” and your polarizing attitude only perpetuates any corrosion. My police force is made up of “minorities” and its inconceivable how anyone could observe otherwise. “
          I guess you’ve proven that the latino community is not distrustful of the police force because the police includes minorities. I apologize for making such a ridiculous, flawed statement as to say that racial profiling makes the latino community distrustful of police.

        • And opposing racial profiling is not “profiling”. I support labor and opposed last Tuesday’s ballot measure vote because I believe the police deserve better. However, police should be held accountable for misconduct, and misconduct by police officers should be actively fought just as it would in any other job.

  4. It’s also important to note that Pina was not beaten because he was misidentified as a gang member, as you and the Murky News seem to insinuate.  He was injured in the physical fight that happened after he ran from the police.

    If Pina had stayed and been cooperative then there’s little doubt anyone would have been injured- just like your (presumably innocent) son wasn’t injured and walked away unscathed.

    • A federal jury found the officer guilty of using excessive force. According to the article that Sparky linked:
      “But neighbors, who testified at the trial, heard Piña asking, “Why did you hit me in the head?” and “Why did you punch me?” according to police reports. The district attorney declined to file resisting-arrest charges against Piña.”

      • The reason he was punched is because he was resisting a lawful detention.  You should read the Court transcripts.

        Civil juries often award low amounts of money when the issues are cloudy.  Clearly the Jury realized that Pina should not have run and deserved force used against him, that’s why the other Officer had no judgement. 

        The $10,000 for him was likely pain and suffering for his injuries- as nearly everyone feels bad for someone who has suffered injuries.

        Realistically, this is a non-story and Pina is quite lucky he got anything at all. A true “out of control” cop using clear excessive force goes to prison and Juries award millions of dollars.

        • Are you seriously arguing that the jury believed appropriate force was applied by the officer and simply ruled otherwise because they “feel bad” for the defendant? The fact that you can so casually ignore a court’s ruling suggests you have a bias in favor of the police officer.

        • Are you saying that the 4 cops that beat Rodney King, March 3, 1991, did NOT use excessive force?  San Jose has had a number of incidents of people killed by police under suspicious circumstances over the years.  Prosecutions for excessive use of force rarely result in conviction, and prison time is even more rare.  I do not favor prosecution of cops involved in multiple incidents involving questionable use of force, but I do favor dismissal or reassignment to jobs where any use of force would be clearly inappropriate.  Spencer Graves

  5. The public has an obligation to stand behind the brave men and women who put their lives on the line every day to increase our safety.  We also have an obligation to limit abuses of power.  Our criminal justice system is far from perfect, but I would expect that the jury that evaluated the evidence in the Peña case probably had access to better information than the previous comments “Anonymously”, “Thevoiceofreason”, and “BS Monitor”.  Serious research has documented that minority groups in the US have the same concept of justice as the majority but different experiences.(1) The Innocence Project has found numerous cases of people placed on death row because of convictions obtained by falsified evidence and coerced perjury, as established subsequently when others confessed to the crimes or using DNA testing.  When this happens, it makes us all less safe, because minority groups are less likely to report crimes or cooperate with police, and the real perpetrator is more confident of not being caught for other crimes.  Spencer Graves

    (1) Tom R. Tyler and Yuen J. Huo (2002) Trust in the Law (Russell Sage Found’s).

  6. Sparky,

    I wonder how many “Latino” youth or even youth that could be mistaken for “Latino” have ever been STOPPED by a “Latino” gang member and asked “What do you claim?” or “Do you Bang? or “What’s up?”

    …maybe the youth answered, “I am not in a gang.” or “I don’t claim anything.” or answered, “Not much, what’s up with you?”

    … and then been violently beaten, maybe stabbed or even shot and suffered lasting physical and emotional scars, a serious traumatic brain injury, or maybe even killed?

    … because that IS what gang members everywhere including right here in San Jose do to kids whether the victim is a nice boy who is polite to adults, a straight A student, scholar athlete who sings in thechurch choir and helps little old ladies cross the street or a kid on the fringe of gang life or a committed member of a rival gang. (gangsters even prey on the homeless who live along the Guadalupe Trail and gangsters even live among the homeless there)

    You and you son should thank your lucky stars that it was a police officer who stopped him that day rather than one of the gangsters who are a scourge on this City.

    • Considering that Sparky is CEO of the Bill Wilson Center for 26 years, I’d say she has a lot more experience reforming and working with gang members than you have, Mr. Weed. Gangs are a real problem for San Jose, but fighting them with a hammer rather than a scalpel just creates more problems.

      • Sparky wants nothing more than to neuter the police, well, maybe to to advocate for more $ too.  She’ll dime out her own kid if that’s what it takes…

        Ideally, every kid in Juvenile Hall is a potential buck or two for BWC- it’s not their fault and they can be fixed! Just send them to me! Pay me- pay me!

        • There is nothing in this story related to funding for the Bill Wilson Center. In fact, this article does not so much as mention the Bill Wilson Center, let alone the fact that the author is the CEO of the Bill Wilson Center. Convincing yourself that she said it all for money is simply a psychological trick to discredit her experiences and opinions as invalid. That’s called closed-mindedness. You can argue with what she said, but the characterization of Sparky as a money-hungry liar, “diming out” her own child, is unfair and inaccurate. There is nothing to suggest that is true.

          I mentioned this below: if an officer stops an individual solely because of race, gender or other bias, than it is considered racial profiling by SJPD. Sparky has shared a story that, if true, fits these parameters. She then states her opinion that the San Jose community would function better without racial profiling.

          These are not very controversial statements, and certainly not “polarizing,” considering leaders of both political parties oppose racial profiling. The Bush Administration spoke out extensively against racial profiling, and one of his last acts in office was a broad ban on racial profiling.

          I don’t want to misinterpret you. Do you support racial profiling? If you do, we can discuss whether it’s right or wrong, but you need to be honest about that opinion. Accusing a charity organization of greed because they’ve been publicly critical of racial profiling is just dancing around that real issue.

      • I am not sure how your comment relates to mine but you might be right regarding the difference in our experience- Sparky has 26 years and I have 22.

        • And I am not sure why you put the word “Latino” in quotation marks three times.

          I am trying to reaffirm Sparky’s statement that “there must be a better way to police our community than stopping and questioning so many youth under the pretext that they may be a gang member,” because unless I misread your comment, you appear to disagree with her. Sparky has real world experience reforming gang members and making sure that at-risk teens don’t make the transition into gangs. I think someone who’s dedicated their life to working with these children has a greater understanding of how racial profiling affects teens than someone who hasn’t.

        • You seem to read quite a bit into others posts. Sparky said she has a son who is “Latino…” sooooo perhaps I was quoting her?

          It is really nice that some people believe that there must be a better way of policing a community. That said, what is the better way?  Harlan and the Bill Wilson Center do what they do and I am sure that the have great success WITH THE KIDS WHO WANT HELP – many of those kids are reffered to the Center by the very same officers who make those so-called “pretext” stops. The ones who aren’t receptive are the ones who are a blight on ALL communities and the police have to deal with them as bother perpetrators AND victims.

          My original point was that HArlan and her son are very fortunate that it was a police officer who made the stop and NOT a gangmember conducting his own investigation into the son’s gang status or lack there of.

          Maybe I wasn’t clear earlier: Had a gangmember or an aspiring gangmember been the one to stop Harlan’s son (instead of that big bully of a cop – that’s just me reading between the lines of your’s and Harlan’s piece), Harlan’s son might have been beaten, stabbed, shot or all of the above… I think that the boy was lucky that he was detained and asked a few investigatory questions, maybe educated about the realities of life on the the streets of San Jose and sent on his way.

        • There’s a difference between quoting someone and passively aggressively using quotation marks to simply emphasize the same word repeatedly. Simply repeating a word the author used is not the same thing as quoting her.

          “I think someone who gets money for their organization by polarizing issues is by definition, not objective.”

          I agree, but there’s nothing polarizing about this article. If an officer stops an individual solely because of race, gender or other bias, than it is considered racial profiling by SJPD. Sparky has shared a story that, if true, fits these parameters. She then states her opinion that the San Jose community would function better without racial profiling.

          What about that is polarizing? Racial profiling is not okay. We decided that as a country a while ago.