States Use Data To Wrestle With Racial Profiling
By John Nagy, Staff Writer
Six states trying to stamp out the controversial, alleged police practice of racial profiling -- selectively stopping, questioning and searching people based upon arbitrary minor offenses and the color of their skin -- have enacted laws requiring officers to police themselves by recording racial data and other pertinent information on all traffic stops. They are North Carolina, Connecticut, Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee and Washington.
Lawmakers who back the bills usually have an anecdote or two of racial injustice against African-Americans or Latinos to share. And in many cases their stories are personal.
But for South Dakota State Rep. Ron Volesky, who intends to sponsor a racial profiling bill in 2001, motivation is less a matter of particular complaints or personal experience than it is about a general need for equal treatment and trust between whites and American Indians, the state's largest minority group.
"Basically here in South Dakota we have had a situation with the Indian population feeling that at times they get profiled on the reservations or in some of the cities or towns off the reservations. Whether it's true or not, I think a profiling bill will at least bring attention to the issue and give a heads up to law enforcement that profiling is something that isn't going to be allowed in our state," Volesky told stateline.org.
"I'm doing it because I think it's an important aspect of reconciliation. If the Indian people of South Dakota think that this is a problem, then we should be sensitive to it," said Volesky, an attorney and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who announced plans last week to seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 2002.South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow (R), himself a former reservation attorney who has repeatedly countered allegations from a federal civil rights panel that his state's criminal justice system treats American Indians unfairly, has condemned racial profiling but has taken no position on data collection legislation, spokesman Bob Mercer said. Lawmakers in neighboring Minnesota have also announced plans to sponsor such a bill next year.
Verifying The Practice
Racial profiling "is a problem in each of the 50 states," National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chairman Julian Bond told NAACP chapter members who met in St. Paul, Minn., last month.
The trouble is proving it.
Police organizations defend profiling in the abstract as a valid and necessary law enforcement technique, but adamantly reject the suggestion that departments encourage or even allow racial profiling. Individual officers who are proven to do so "are no longer welcome in the profession," said national Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Tim Richardson.
"Profiling is a legitimate law enforcement tool. It goes well beyond race. Any profiling that's solely based on race is wrong and is [not a] legitimate law enforcement tool," Richardson said.
"If it takes race into consideration at all, it has to only be a small part, because you're targeting the crime and the perpetrators of the crime. And criminals come in all shapes, sizes and colors. They're not restricted to any ethnicity," he said.
But other observers claim that police do use racial profiles -- and are justified in doing so -- even if they don't have the courage to admit it.
Economist Jared Taylor is president of the New Century Foundation, a law-and-order research group based in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Oakton, Va. Taylor says that police who use racial profiles are just doing their duty.
His report, "The Color of Crime," analyzes racial breakdowns of criminal justice statistics and is featured on a Web site that provides links to white supremacist sites.
"In statistical terms, you are just as justified taking race into consideration as you are in taking sex into consideration," Taylor says. "If the police spent as much time keeping an eye on blue-haired old ladies or 25 year-old women with toddlers as they do young, black men, they couldn't get their jobs done. They have to make intelligent distinctions on the basis of what boils down to statistics."
"Some of the disparities we have in the prison population have to do with where we target those police resources. If you stop and search a lot of cars in Beverly Hills of white people, you're probably going to find some drugs," counters John Crew, who directs the American Civil Liberties Union's campaign against racial profiling from his office in San Francisco.
"Racial profiling, like any kind of profiling or any kind of police tactic, can be misused," Taylor acknowledges. "But just because some policemen misuse their firearms, it doesn't mean we disarm the entire force.
"Backing Stories With Hard Data
Anecdotal evidence of racial profiling has piled high. And for supporters of racial profiling measures, the lack of national figures on the racial component of traffic stops and the heavy reliance on personal testimony is precisely the reason why data collection laws are needed.
A March 13 report by the General Accounting Office, Congress's independent research arm, "found no comprehensive, nationwide source of information that could be used to determine whether race has been a key factor in motorist stops.
"Twin profiling bills before Congress, sponsored by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), seek to fill that gap by authorizing the U.S. Attorney General to conduct a national study of traffic stops made by law enforcement officers and to offer grants to participating agencies.
"What data collection does is it takes a problem that is invisible and makes it visible so that you can address it and spot solutions," said Crew. The ACLU campaign includes litigation and political action in several states as well as a telephone and Internet hotline that encourages people who feel they were stopped unjustly to call in and record their story.
Pointing to New Jersey, where statewide data released in April 1999 revealed that nearly 80 percent of those pulled over while travelling the New Jersey Turnpike were minority drivers, Crew says that statistics are now necessary to substantiate the stories and change attitudes and practices.
"Anyone who thinks you can address racial profiling without data, ask Christine Todd Whitman. Ask the New Jersey State Police. For years in that state, notwithstanding many complaints, public officials denied there was a problem and then they went out and got the data. When they collected their own data, they had to reverse themselves," Crew said.
In June, New Jersey officials said that the results of their voluntary, first-ever statewide analysis of race in state troopers' arrest patterns, conducted between January and April this year, were too limited to support substantial conclusions. But Whitman's political difficulties with profiling sprang afresh with the release of a photo showing her frisking a black man in Camden in 1996.
A spokesman for the American Automobile Association, the nation's largest motorist advocacy group, said the organization had not taken an official position on racial profiling and traffic stops but is studying the issue.
Meanwhile, critics of data collection say it unduly burdens police officers with paperwork as they try go about their main job: fighting crime.
States Pursue Legislative Solutions
"Driving While Black," the street-smart term for racial profiling, is already the target of data collection laws passed in Connecticut and North Carolina in 1999 and Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee and Washington this year. While more states like Massachusetts consider the legislative path, Crew said a conservative estimate would count at least 300 law enforcement agencies nationwide that have volunteered to collect their own data without a mandate.
Oklahoma also enacted a racial profiling bill this session that explicitly outlaws the practice and directs the state's Human Rights Commission to prepare an annual report of complaints rather than asking police to collect data.
At least ten other states, including New Jersey, have considered data collection and similar legislation since January, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But how well is state-mandated data collection working? North Carolina Sen. Frank W. Balance Jr. (D), the chief sponsor of the nation's first successful data collection bill, told stateline.org that he was "disappointed" with first-round results. Although the statistics showed that more blacks than whites were being pulled over by state troopers, they did not specify the location, time or the officers involved, he said.
Ballance said that lawmakers corrected the procedure during the recent budget session, authorizing officers to be assigned i.d. numbers and to record the additional data. He expects more useful results "by the end of the year."
Beyond verifying that some troopers are profiling minorities on the state's highways, "I believe it will have a much stronger effect in ameliorating that conduct, because once the spotlight comes on you, you modify your conduct," Ballance said.
California's Business Card Alternative
But police groups and some public officials bristle at mandates. One prominent alternative is pending in California, where Gov. Gray Davis (D) became the first governor to slap down a data collection bill last year despite overwhelming support for it in both houses of the legislature. He threatened to do the same if presented with an identical plan this year.
The original measure's sponsor, Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City), crafted a compromise with Davis that would require state and local law enforcement officers to participate in cultural awareness training. It would also require them to give a business card to everyone they stop, a provision Davis touts as innovative and Murray calls a good first step, but which skeptics deride as a dodge.
"It's a fraud, plain and simple," said Crew. "The idea that you're going to put the burden to solve racial profiling completely on the shoulders of victims is unrealistic and shows a lack of understanding of the problem."
Crew called the Murray-Davis plan "the LAPD approach to racial profiling," indicating a similar program used by the Los Angeles Police Department.
In response to a January editorial advocating data collection in the Los Angeles Times, L.A. Police Chief Bernard C. Parks reiterated that both the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department required officers to identify themselves "every time a person is detained" and that data collection did not make sense for organizations that were already dealing with the issue "quite effectively."
Davis's office rejects the "LAPD" label, noting that he has directed the California Highway Patrol to collect data and has encouraged other jurisdictions in the state to do the same. To date, several of the state's largest police departments have complied.
"The governor is against racial profiling. It's an important issue ... We're in favor of data collection. We're not in favor of forcing it," a Davis spokesperson said.
Crew also suggested that racial profiling -- a key issue for Vice President Al Gore in his presidential campaign -- and Gov. Davis's veto are likely to come to a head when the Democrats convene in Los Angeles in August. But neither the governor's office nor the Gore campaign anticipate any conflict over the issue there. A Gore spokesman said that the Vice President was not familiar with the status of the California plan, but that he continued to support data collection proposals at the national level.
"The Vice President believes that we must do more to make sure we never unfairly target those who are innocent. No one believes more strongly in tough law enforcement than the Vice President," the spokesman said.