Police plan standard for stopping motorists

Blacks have claimed they are singled out

April 10, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Police chiefs from the nation's largest cities agreed yesterday to devise a national standard for traffic stops to deal with complaints that black motorists are more likely to be pulled over by suspicious officers.

The plan, which has not been formulated, would address, among other things, the way cars are chosen for stops and the demeanor of the officers. It comes out of a meeting between the nation's top police executives and community leaders.

Confronting highly charged cases -- including the police shooting Feb. 4 of an unarmed immigrant in New York City -- the group met Thursday and tried to strike a balance between aggressive tactics to lower crime and respecting the rights of citizens.

Community leaders resoundingly urged that something be done about "profile" traffic stops of minorities. Most law enforcement agencies deny using the practice, including the Maryland State Police, who have been repeatedly accused of using it on Inter state 95.

"African-American males' first initiation into the criminal justice system often comes from a traffic stop," said Nathaniel Khaliq, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People branch in St. Paul, Minn. He said routine stops of black drivers often lead to arrests for "disorderly conduct, assaults on police and many other bogus charges."

The meeting, which officials termed urgent, was put together by the Police Executive Research Forum, a group of police chiefs from across the country that is headed by Baltimore Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier.

Chiefs from more than 30 cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta, Boston, Minneapolis, Phoenix and Portland, Ore., attended, along with at least one community leader from each city.

Attorney General Janet Reno, who attended the Thursday meeting, said she wants to confront the issue of the use of racial profiles by police in stopping citizens but said she needs more data on how often and where that practice is used.

"Let's address it. Let's hit it head-on," she said. "If police officers say, `We're not [using racial profiles],' let's stand behind them, but stand behind them with hard facts. And where we see the problem, let's do something about it."

Citizens said they were skeptical at first about whether their concerns would be heard, let alone understood. "We walked away with a new sense of hope," said Karla Esteve of Phoenix. "Not every problem was solved but we began the discussion, an important first step."

Frazier, who attended the meeting with Roger Lyons, president of the Baltimore Urban League, said at a news conference yesterday that "racial discord remains one of the most critical issues facing our country."

"Simply reducing our nation's crime rate cannot be the only barometer of police success," Frazier said.

"The means used to accomplish crime reduction must be as important as the results themselves. The success of crime reduction is diminished if community trust declines as well."

Frazier has rejected the "zero-tolerance" approach adopted in New York, in which every crime, no matter how minor, gets a police response. The idea is that serious offenses can be abated by taking every infraction seriously.

The policy has been credited with reducing New York's high homicide rate and other crimes, but critics say it came at the price of promoting a culture that tolerates brutal enforcement and erodes citizen trust.

New York Police Commissioner Howard Safir said yesterday that "community policing has to be balanced with crime reduction. You can do aggressive policing without violating people's rights. I think that's what we do in New York."

Police commanders in Baltimore have pointed to recent reductions in crime and homicides and said they didn't need to resort to draconian enforcement methods.

But policing across Maryland has come under scrutiny. There have been publicized reports about out-of-control police dogs in Prince George's County, a growing controversy in Montgomery County about the race of its next police chief and lawsuits concerning alleged profile stops by Maryland State Police.

Baltimore has avoided the kind of explosive incidents that have led to protests and community outrage in other cities.

"There have been difficult moments, but there never has been a complete loss of legitimacy in the Police Department, like in New York," said Lawrence Sherman, a criminal justice professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 4/10/99

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