Being black on I-95 Suspicious searches: State Police must combat even subliminal stereotyping by troopers.

November 25, 1996

POLICE OFFICERS must be free to intuit, to listen when their instincts tell them something is wrong. Unfortunately the evidence suggests that some state troopers' instincts too often tell them something is wrong when they see blacks traveling interstate roads, particularly Interstate 95.

Two years ago the courts -- prompted by a suit filed by a black Washington, D.C., lawyer searched on his way home from a funeral -- ordered the Maryland State Police not to consider race in its searches. The police maintain that the lawyer was searched because the car -- a rented Cadillac -- and the driver's nervousness raised suspicions. The state agency claims it has never authorized race-based searches.

Yet police still are left with their own disturbing statistics regarding John F. Kennedy Highway, a stretch of I-95 heavily trafficked by drug couriers. The American Civil Liberties Union, which got involved when the lawyer filed suit, has asked for sanctions against police after reviewing 1995 figures showing 70 percent of those searched for traffic violations were black. Police chalk this up to coincidence, but most I-95 drivers are white, and so are most motorists cited for traffic violations.

What is going on here? There is no malicious, official effort to frighten and humiliate blacks. In fact, troopers ask to search only a tiny fraction of blacks pulled over on JFK Highway (37 out of 3,700 during the past five months). Rather, the problem is a tendency by some troopers to view black drivers suspiciously because drug couriers are often black. In political parlance this is called "rational discrimination." It's also called stereotyping.

State Police officials say they are working to help troopers overcome prejudices, even subliminal ones. Since 1994 every sworn officer has received diversity training and instruction about what factors justify a request for a search. Though the most recent figures show a decline in the proportion of blacks being searched on I-95, top police officials must continue educating the force and emphasizing that racially motivated searches are not merely unfair, but unconstitutional. Without such vigilance, the gulf between the law enforcement and black communities will only widen.

Pub Date: 11/25/96

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