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Barbershop aftershocks

For reasons that remain elusive, Moreno Valley police last year conducted raids of African American-owned barbershops, allegedly entering the businesses wearing body armor and asking patrons for identification (as far as we know, valid ID has never been required in California in order to get a haircut). When one barber asked for an explanation, he was allegedly handcuffed and hauled out to a police cruiser.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and a Chicago law firm filed a suit in federal district court Wednesday that says officers targeted five black-owned barbershops in April 2008, accompanying inspectors from the state Board of Barbering and Cosmetology on the pretense that the searches were just routine health-code inspections. Certainly the state has an obligation to inspect barbershops, and police have the right, if they obtain search warrants, to determine whether a business is home to illegal activity. But when the two are combined, it looks an awful lot like a police fishing expedition, and it raises serious civil-rights questions. For example, did officers have to buddy up with state officials, who have the right of entry, because they couldn’t get a search warrant on their own?

The barbers and their customers remain indignant and humiliated. They say business has fallen off and their reputations are damaged. And beyond the negative impact on the shops themselves, the raids have had ripple effects. Barbershops are of particular importance in the black community; they are part French salon, part Spanish cafe and part community living room for men. Targeting them without a clearly articulated cause is a surefire way to exacerbate tension in a community that already struggles with a sense of being disrespected by law enforcement.

Even worse than the raids themselves, however, is what happened afterward: nothing. In a textbook example of poor community relations, leaders in the fast-growing Riverside County city did little to mediate the issue. There was little or no effort to bring police officials, community leaders and the barbers together or to create forums for discussion and understanding. So one year later, the wound remains open. That’s too bad. The raids, which look distinctly like racial profiling at its worst, nonetheless could have become the vehicle for a better working relationship between law enforcement and the barbers. That public airing is likely to happen, but unfortunately now it looks as if it’s going to be facilitated by a judge.

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