Stop racial profiling


WASHINGTON -- Gov. Parris Glendening, the newly elected leader of the National Governors' Association, announced last week that he will sponsor a bill during the next General Assembly session to combat "racial profiling," the police practice of using race as a factor in deciding which motorists to stop or search.

I'm not impressed.

Actions speak louder than words, and the actions (or should I say inaction) of Mr. Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend reveal that eradicating racial profiling is not really one of their priorities.

Some background:

On May 8, 1992, my family and I were illegally detained and humiliated through racial profiling practiced by the Maryland State Police. This happened near Cumberland, when we were returning to Washington from Chicago.

Days earlier, the state police circulated an "intelligence report" warning that drug dealers and traffickers in the area were "predominately black males and females" who liked to use rental cars.

The trooper who stopped us thought this report gave him license to detain and order us to stand on the side of the highway in the rain while he had a German shepherd search our car because we, too, were African-Americans and had driven a rental car into Allegany County. Other than that, the police had no reason to think we were carrying drugs, and they found none in their search.

When this occurred, Los Angeles was still smoldering. On April 29 of that year, a jury had acquitted the police officers of the infamous Rodney King beating, and the national topic of conversation was whether the police respected the rights of African-Americans and whether "the system" adequately addressed issues of police accountability and racial discrimination.

My family and I had discussed those issues during our trip, so we viewed our encounter not only with outrage and disgust, but also with stinging irony.

Unlike most people in our situation, we were able to obtain counsel and gain some leverage against the state police; it didn't hurt that I was a Harvard Law graduate and we were able to acquire a copy of the "smoking gun," the illegal racial profile disguised as an "intelligence report."

Working with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, we sued the state police in federal court, and eventually negotiated a settlement in 1995. The agreement not only instituted non-discrimination policies and training, but also created a monitoring and enforcement mechanism by requiring the MSP to document who was being searched and why.

Despite the settlement, continued problems became evident almost immediately.

State police data from 1996-1997 showed that about 75 percent of motorists stopped and searched by troopers along Interstate 95 were African-American, despite the fact that only 17 percent of the drivers and traffic violators along on that stretch of the road are African-American. The MSP data also showed that if they searched 100 whites and 100 African-Americans they were equally likely to find drugs. The problem was that they were searching 500 African-Americans for every 100 whites.

Instead of taking action to fix the problem when confronted with this overwhelming statistical evidence, the state police fought us in court and argued that numbers reflected a mere "coincidence."

Even though the ink was barely dry on the signatures, the state police even had the audacity to argue that its settlement agreement with us to stop racial profiling could not be enforced. U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake disagreed and ruled in 1997 that we had made a threshold showing that the state police had engaged in a continuing pattern and practice of discrimination. But she deferred further action and the litigation continues. Where was Governor Glendening?

Since then, so many people have come forward with complaints about illegal stops and searches on I-95 that the Maryland branches of the NAACP and ACLU have filed a class-action racial profiling lawsuit.

Today, countless innocent African-Americans want to know why, in the face of the 1995 agreement, dogs harassed them or troopers searched and scattered their belongings on the side of the road for no apparent reason other than the color of their skin. Recently submitted state police data from the first quarter of this year still shows that African-Americans are searched on I-95 at a rate three times their proportion to the driving population.

Mr. Glendening doesn't need legislation to address the problems within his own state police force. This is happening on his watch, and he and Ms. Townsend are directly accountable for the actions of the state police and the failure to stop the continuing injustice.

Instead of telling us his plans to sponsor a bill next year, the governor should show us what action he is taking right now to stop, once and for all, racial injustice by his own employees. Now that would be impressive.

Robert Wilkins is a lawyer with Washington's Public Defender Service.

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