Monday, May 21, 2001

Penalty proposed for race profiling

By Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — Black and Hispanic lawmakers have proposed a bill that would withhold federal transportation money from states that fail to ban racial profiling by police.

        States would have until 2003 to prohibit racial profiling, defined by lawmakers as a practice where police consider race, ethnicity or national origin when deciding which drivers to stop or search. States also would have to collect demographic information on traffic stops so the public can monitor law enforcement agencies.

        The strategy of targeting federal transportation money is similar to one used by opponents of drunken driving to compel states to lower the legal threshold for driving under the influence.

        “Withholding federal highway funds works because it hurts,” said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who noted that states rely heavily on the federal government for help with transportation projects.

        “If Congress is serious about eliminating the last disgraceful scar of overt discrimination in our country, let us put our money where our mouth is.”

        President Bush has called for racial profiling to end and Attorney General John Ashcroft has asked Congress to act to examine the scope of the practice nationally. Other lawmakers are drafting bills that would provide federal money so police can install video cameras in patrol cars and train officers in racial sensitivity.

        Most members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are co-sponsors of Ms. Norton's idea, which she wants included in a federal transportation spending bill next year.

        It would require states to ban racial profiling, but law officers could still use race or ethnic origin, together with other physical descriptions, when searching for specific suspects. States would have to keep records for every traffic stop, including the name and identification number of the officer, characteristics of the driver, traffic infraction involved, whether a search was conducted, legal basis and results of the search, and whether the stop ended with a citation or arrest.

        States that ignored the federal guidelines would lose 5 percent of federal transportation money by 2003, 10 percent by 2004, and 10 percent for each year after. Through 2005, states could get money back if officials follow the guidelines within three years of first being sanctioned.

        “People don't give up their civil rights when they step into an automobile,” said Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., whose state entered a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice after allegations of racial profiling by the state police.

        “If you want federal highway funding, then you can't use those highways to pull over people simply because of the color of their skin,” he said.

        In Cincinnati, civil-rights activists have sued the city, claiming a 30-year pattern of racial discrimination by police. The case is in federal mediation. Cincinnati police began collecting race information on all traffic stops May 7.

        Several state and local studies have shown that minorities are disproportionately stopped by police, but law enforcement officials deny that such patterns prove racism.

        Reuben Greenberg, chief of police in Charleston, S.C., said requiring police to record demographic information of every traffic stop may inject race into an officer's thinking. If an officer had already pulled over numerous black drivers, for instance, that officer may choose not to stop any more black drivers that month out of fear of fulfilling a pattern.

        “It would cause us for the first time to look at race,” said Mr. Greenberg, who spoke here last week at a forum on racial profiling. “It could actually cause the very thing that we don't want.”

        The National Conference of State Legislatures says 13 states have racial profiling laws: Connecticut, North Carolina, California, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington, Kentucky, Oregon and Maryland. Lawmakers in several other states are considering legislation.


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