IT'S TIME for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to exercise his leadership at a historic moment on an issue of national importance in Maryland.
A racial profiling consent decree - agreed to by the Maryland State Police and the NAACP last fall after years of negotiations - should come before the state Board of Public Works in the near future and should be approved.
The agreement is a state-of-the-art model of professional policing intended to support police officers in their efforts to end even unconscious racial bias in the very important work they do.
A parade of studies over the past decade has demonstrated that racial profiling is a nationwide problem. Maryland statistics show that African-Americans were five times more likely than whites to be searched on Interstate 95 even though they accounted for less than 20 percent of the traffic. Indeed, in 1997, a federal judge found a discriminatory pattern in these searches.
And so the General Assembly spoke unequivocally on this issue when it passed a landmark bill in 2001 to eradicate racial profiling in Maryland. That bill was part of then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening's legislative package and was a priority of the Legislative Black Caucus.
That law dovetails nicely with the consent decree because it ultimately requires every local police agency to keep records of stops and searches by race. It is now time for the state police to be the model for the local agencies.
The agreement requires the state to establish a system for tracking and reviewing the race of motorists who are stopped, sets up a police-citizen panel that would deal with concerns about racial profiling and creates a statewide 800 telephone number for complaints.
It also would require state troopers to give motorists they stop a brochure about how to file racial profiling complaints.
In 2001, the General Assembly spoke with a near unanimous voice because:
The issue cuts across class lines since people of color - rich and poor - are unfairly stopped.
The call for reform has bipartisan support. President Bush has called racial profiling "wrong." Retired Republican conservative Rep. J.C. Watts has taken a position against it, having been a victim of it countless times in his home state of Oklahoma.
The majority of citizens believe racial profiling is unfair.
To be sure, this is also a personal issue for members of the Legislative Black Caucus.
It is difficult for us to have faith in the American judicial system when we can't even drive down an interstate without being stopped merely because of the color of our skin. Government officials such as Mr. Ehrlich can help rebuild the trust for law enforcement and its agents within communities of color.
We will be waiting and watching for the governor's leadership on this.
Obie Patterson, a Democrat, represents District 26, in Prince George's County, in the House of Delegates and is chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland.