Bias on the roads

The Baltimore Sun

Many black drivers who say they have been stopped on the highway and questioned by police without cause use an ironic phrase to describe the injustice: "driving while black." In Maryland, the state police long denied bias, saying their stops were random or triggered by evidence. But last week, black motorists won overdue recognition of the fairness of their complaints with the settlement of a long-standing lawsuit against the agency.

As part of its agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union, state police pledged to take steps to avoid any possibility of racial bias in the future, including the installation of video cameras in cruisers. The settlement may end the ACLU's 13-year-old lawsuit but not necessarily police bias, and the state police should periodically review their video footage of troopers to ensure they are living up to their promise.

As recently as last fall, the ACLU took the state police back to court, claiming the agency was withholding racial data on traffic stops required in a 2003 federal court consent order in the same case.

With last week's settlement, the state police formally recognized that "driving while black" was an important civil rights issue. The state paid cash settlements to six black drivers in the federal racial bias lawsuit first filed by the ACLU in 1998.

But there remains reason to be concerned that police will act fairly and judiciously. A U.S. Justice Department study in 2002 showed that 22 percent of young African-American males had either their vehicle or person searched after being stopped by police, compared with 17 percent who were Latino and 8 percent who were white.

The best way to police the Maryland State Police would be for the agency to provide easy access to data on traffic stops and the reasons for them.

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