'Driving While Black' bill targets police bias Data on traffic stops, searches stipulated in Senate legislation

August 15, 1998|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Jawad Abdullah left his native Trinidad in the 1970s, never suspecting his dark skin and long dreadlocks might pose an arresting problem.

He now thinks they attract the attention of police, who have stopped and searched the northwest Baltimore resident in several states, including Maryland, more than a dozen times since 1974.

He's been cited mostly for minor infractions, but Abdullah's anger grows -- largely because it is difficult to prove, as he and others suspect, that such stops result from racial bias.

The ability to prove bias in general could change if a so-called "Driving While Black" bill passes the U.S. Senate in the coming weeks. The bill would require the attorney general's office to collect data on traffic stops and searches in order to show patterns of racial bias.

Rallying behind the bill this week, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sparked a letter-writing campaign, urging citizens to encourage their legislators to support the legislation, which the NAACP says highlights a problem long known among many African-Americans, but not widely acknowledged in the larger society.

"If we lived in a colorblind society where everyone was equal, no one would question it, but in this country, in the case of law enforcement officers, that is not the case," said Kweisi Mfume, president of the Baltimore-based NAACP.

"As long as we have discriminatory treatment taking place in this country that we can document, then we ought to have the gumption to [document] it."

Police largely oppose the bill, saying it would create an undue burden on law enforcement officers and wouldn't necessarily prove anything.

"It's just more paperwork on the individual officers who should be out on the streets fighting crime," said Robert Scully, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, which represents thousands of police unions. "I really don't know what this would prove."

The issue -- often dubbed racial profiling -- is not new, particularly in Maryland.

In 1992, sparked by complaints from African-American drivers, the American Civil Liberties Union studied a stretch of Interstate 95. The ACLU numbers showed that blacks were 14 percent of drivers but 72 percent of those pulled over.

Under a 1995 settlement orchestrated by U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake, state troopers were ordered to compile statistics.

The troopers found that on a 48-mile stretch of Interstate 95 from just north of Baltimore to the Delaware border, blacks made up nearly a third of those pulled over. But blacks were slightly more than half of those searched and 58 percent of those arrested. The state police study covered the period from mid-June 1996 through March. In the state police barracks that covers the area, 37 percent of the officers are black, as is the commander.

"We were being accused of only stopping African-Americans, and that just wasn't the case," said Capt. John Shipley, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police. "Each case is based on its own circumstances. Race cannot be a factor in the indicators."

But many believe that race still is a primary factor that police use in deciding to stop drivers.

Rep. John Conyers Jr., the Michigan Democrat who sponsored the bill, said it addresses an issue familiar to many black men.

"Almost every African-American man will be the subject of this sort of unfair treatment at least once, if not many times," Conyers said in March, when the bill passed the House of Representatives in a unanimous voice vote.

"And no one hears about this, no one does anything about it," he said.

After a Philadelphia resident complained that he was stopped on I-95 in Maryland in 1996, the ACLU and NAACP filed a class action lawsuit in April with 11 plaintiffs, alleging a pattern of discrimination. The case is pending.

"I thought it best to come forward, if not for me, then for future generations so they don't have to be subject to those embarrassments or humiliations simply for driving," said Abdullah, a crime lab technician for the Baltimore Police Department who is one of the 11 plaintiffs.

"You feel very much violated."

Many of the bill's proponents acknowledge that law enforcement officials have a heavy load to bear, and that criminals often have in common characteristics that help officers to uncover crimes.

But, said Darnell Hawkins, a University of Illinois at Chicago criminologist who studies racial profiling, "I tell my students in looking at prison statistics from the past, some states in the South had 95 percent black inmates. Blacks may in fact have had higher rates of crime, but did whites really commit only 5 percent of crime?"

In modern traffic-stop cases, "shouldn't whites be stopped more?" he asked. "Is the white stop rate unusually low?"

Before it cleared the House, Republican legislators added an amendment that took much of the substance out of the bill: The data collected could not be used to prove in court that racial bias occurred in a given instance.

"If it does pass, it won't be all that effective -- it would be more of a moral victory," Hawkins said. "You cannot, on the national level, regulate the behavior of state and local police."

Scully, of the Association of Police Organizations, said remedies are in place to deal with allegations of bias, including police complaint procedures and civil rights legislation enforced by the courts.

But the complaints from motorists continue to stream in, according to William J. Mertens of the ACLU.

Mfume said blacks are also increasingly facing racial bias in airport searches. The NAACP has been getting complaints on that issue for about the past 18 months.

"It seems to be rearing its head with respect not just to drivers of color but to travelers of color," Mfume said.

"What we have a problem with is that it just seems to be black and brown people who continue to be held up and searched and humiliated."

Pub Date: 8/15/98

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