Howard County police officials announced yesterday they will begin a program that will allow them to weed out officers who use race as a basis for traffic stops -- a step taken by no other department in the Baltimore area and by only a handful across the country.
Police Chief Wayne Livesay said his purpose is to open a "dialogue" with the minority community and reassure it that he will not tolerate racial profiling as a means to fight crime.
"I am not naive enough to think these things [racial profiling] are not occurring," he said. "But I can't stand here and say I know of specific cases, either."
Livesay and Howard County Executive James N. Robey said at a news conference attended by black community leaders that a database tracking officers' actions would be created -- they hope by the beginning of next year, they said.
Officers would record the race of people they stop under any circumstances.
While Maryland State Police are required by a court settlement to keep statistics on their traffic stops, few departments in the nation are willing to take on what can amount to an administrative nightmare, raising more questions then it answers, law enforcement experts say.
In Montgomery County, law enforcement officials are studying ways to develop an anti-profiling program. Four California departments -- San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland -- voluntarily began to compile similar databases in May, according to Robert Lunney, a consultant with the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum.
State police in North Carolina and Connecticut and police in Brookline, Mass., also are collecting data, he said.
"I believe this type of thing is being done in the interest of openness and honesty in the police departments," Lunney said.
Racial profiling has become a national issue after several departments -- including state police in Maryland and New Jersey -- were accused of stopping motorists because of their race.
In April, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno asked police departments to collect data that could be used to back up police claims that they do not use racial profiles to develop probable cause for traffic stops or searches of vehicles.
Also in May, police chiefs from the nation's largest departments met with community leaders in Washington and agreed to devise a national standard for traffic stops. The plan, when completed, would address how cars are chosen for stops and the demeanor of the officers.
Yesterday, Livesay and Robey, a former Howard County police chief, emphasized that no particular incident has led to the data- base plan. County law enforcement officials, they said, want only to be "proactive" in their response to what they see as a national problem in police work.
"There were issues and complaints that some people were stopped because of their race," Robey said. "But they have never been substantiated."
Also speaking at the news conference was the Rev. John L. Wright, pastor of First Baptist Church of Guilford and a civil rights activist. While he knew of no specific cases of racial profiling, he said, he believes that it happens in Howard County, and he applauded the department's efforts to work against profiling.
"It has happened," he said before the conference began. "But just like not all crime is reported to police, all encounters with offi- cers are not reported to police, either."
Wright and Livesay will hold a community forum at the church, beginning at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Though some officers said they are concerned that the use of a database tracking their traffic stops would result in less aggressive crime fighting, Livesay and Robey stated that they do not expect officers to slack off.
"We want aggressive law enforcement," Livesay said. "I want quality service to continue. This county is a safe county, and it did not get that way by accident."
No threat to officers seen
Officer James F. Fitzgerald, president of the police union, said that while officers were surprised to hear Livesay speak out against racial profiling, he does not think the chief's plan to use a database poses a threat to local officers or to law enforcement.
"Officers are not going to be worried about this," he said. "There are enough criminals to go around."
Details for setting up the database must be worked out, Livesay said. He plans to have a system in which he can audit officers individually.
He will be looking for patterns over months, he said, and he will take into consideration the population of the area that the officer patrols.
He said he plans to track each stop -- including those in which no ticket is issued.
Methods for gathering data
Lunney said data can be collected two ways -- the officer can ask the motorist his or her race, risking offending the person; or race identification can be left up to the judgment of the officer. As in most states, race is not listed on Maryland drivers' licenses, leaving police to either ask or assume the race of the motorist when they check off the race box on a speeding ticket.
Either way, Lunney said, there is a risk that the data collected are not accurate. Reno has applauded the San Diego police program that allows officers to enter the race of a motorist into a hand-held computer.