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One Crime, a Million 'Hispanic' Suspects

August 26, 2003|Luis R. Torres | Luis R. Torres is a reporter at KNX Newsradio in Los Angeles.

At a Los Angeles County sheriff's news conference this month, something bad happened, something that happens all too frequently.

The authorities said a young man had killed an elderly limousine driver in the course of a carjacking, and they needed the public's assistance in finding the attacker.

The detective in charge of the case told reporters that authorities had a surveillance photo of the suspect, whom he described as "a Hispanic male, between 20 and 30 years of age." The description went on to include medium build and medium height.

How's that for specificity? In Los Angeles County, that narrows it to, say, a million possible suspects.

I cannot tell you how many times during my 25 years as a reporter I've listened to police recite similarly useless "descriptions."

All of this raises two fundamental issues. One is the importance of sensitivity and thoughtfulness in using race and ethnicity to describe crime suspects, especially on the part of radio and television news departments, where getting the news out competitively makes it ever more difficult to get it out carefully. The other is the meaninglessness of the term "Hispanic" in physical descriptions of crime suspects.

In the newsroom where I work, the policy is to include the race or ethnicity of a suspect only if it is relevant to the story and if the description is unmistakably specific.

Consider this description: "Police are asking for the public's help in locating a hit-and-run suspect who is African American, 6 feet, 6 inches tall, with a tattoo on his neck. He was last seen driving a red four-door 2003 BMW with the California license plate number ... " That definitely would be helpful.

But the kind of descriptions I hear over and over, and that too often get broadcast or published, are the ones that can turn a huge swath of the population into suspects: "Police are seeking a black male, between the ages of 20 and 40, between 5 feet 5 and 6 feet tall. He was last seen wearing a Laker jersey."

"Hispanic" should be retired as a term of physical description, unless it is accompanied by precise details on such characteristics as weight, height, hair color and distinguishing marks. Otherwise, it's like saying, "Police are on the lookout for a Kansan, about 6-foot-2, eyes of blue." Or a tall Texan. Or a skinny New Yorker. Or a fat Minnesotan.

Hispanics can be white, black, indigenous or mestizo (a mix of European and Native American). Cub slugger Sammy Sosa, a man with African roots, is Hispanic. Sometimes blond, sometimes not pop singer Christina Aguilera is Hispanic. I'm Hispanic (both my parents were born in Mexico), but I've been mistaken for Italian, Polish and German. Actor Martin Sheen, whose original surname is Estevez, is Hispanic.

If the police and media are going to disseminate physical descriptions, those descriptions had better be accurate, detailed and useful.

Think about the explosive reaction that would result if this newspaper or any major broadcast outlet put out this sentence: "Two white men held up a liquor store today in Los Angeles."

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