Issue of whether blacks are targeted isn't simple

May 30, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

COL. DAVID MITCHELL, superintendent of the Maryland State Police, walked right into the racial profiling imbroglio in 1995 when he took over the job.

The issue is now known nationally as the "driving while black" syndrome. Activists have protested the perceived disproportionate number of blacks stopped by police. There is legislation pending in Congress that would require police agencies to document the race of those stopped to discern whether there is a pattern of racial profiling.

In Maryland, state police have come under criticism for disproportionately stopping black motorists and searching their vehicles. Troopers in the John F. Kennedy barracks -- who patrol the 46-mile stretch of Interstate 95 in Harford and Cecil counties -- came in for the harshest criticism. In 1995, 73.7 percent of the searches in that stretch of road were of black motorists. White motorists accounted for 21.6 percent of the searches, and Asians 4.7 percent. Troopers found illegal drugs or drug money in 40.5 percent of the searches.

Mitchell, sitting in a chair in the Pikesville barracks conference room, said police chiefs across the country look at such statistics and ask: Do such figures represent good police work or discrimination?

"There isn't a simple answer in the law enforcement community on this issue," Mitchell said. Even the statistics, he said, can be misleading. For a while, the media have claimed that the 1995 figure of 73.7 percent refers to the number of blacks stopped on I-95. Mitchell stressed that the figure refers to the number of vehicles with black drivers that were searched.

Another favorite media line, according to Mitchell, is reporting that black drivers are only 17 percent of the drivers on I-95. The more accurate term is that black drivers were, in 1995, 17 percent of those stopped for what Capt. Greg Shipley, public information officer for the state police, said could be a long list of violations.

And the figures are dropping. Blacks drove 64.2 percent of the vehicles searched in 1996, 57.6 percent of those searched in 1997 and 43.8 percent of those searched in 1998. The percentage of whites who drove searched vehicles climbed steadily in those years: 21.6 percent in 1995, 24.4 percent in 1996, 37.7 percent in 1997 and 49.3 percent in 1998.

The statistics are even more revealing -- or more confusing, depending on how you feel about this subject -- when the total number of stops is taken into account. State police started keeping those figures in June 1996. In 1997, blacks drove 28 percent of the 18,264 vehicles stopped by JFK barracks troopers. Whites drove 66 percent, and Asians about 6 percent. The percentages were roughly the same for 1998, when 27,362 stops were made.

Of the blacks who were stopped in 1998, 2 percent had their vehicles searched. The 1998 figures were 1 percent for whites and 2 percent for Asians. The 1997 figures were 1 percent for blacks, 0.3 percent for whites and 0.4 percent for Asians.

"If we're out there trolling [for black motorists], the numbers are going to be a lot bigger than that," Mitchell said.

In this mix of stats are figures showing that searches by JFK barracks troopers declined sharply in 1996 and 1997. Mitchell attributed that to the troopers' low morale as a result of the 1995 settlement of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that required state police to keep statistics on traffic stops.

But there was a second reason for the decline. Mitchell believes those ever-ingenious drug dealers are avoiding I-95.

"Drug dealers aren't foolish," Mitchell said. "They bypass 95. They're using Routes 13 and 213."

But the number of searches by JFK barracks troopers has started to rise again, despite a new ACLU lawsuit filed last summer. Mitchell believes his agency's stats back up his claim that he tolerates no racial profiling among his troopers. Frankly, when 98 percent of the people stopped are allowed to go on their way without a search, it's hard to argue with him.

But he concedes that minorities perceive police differently than whites. He questions whether police are doing enough to change that perception.

"To what extent do we in law enforcement have the duty to say, `Sir, I've stopped you for such and such'?" he asked. He remembers the times he stopped people who matched the description of a suspect and found out they were innocent. He also remembers he apologized to those people and explained to them what was going on.

Mitchell has tried to diversify his force to change minority perceptions of state troopers. About 20 percent of troopers statewide are black, as are 37 percent of the troopers at JFK. But there's a touch of irony even in that percentage.

Five of the troopers being sued in the new ACLU lawsuit are black.

Pub Date: 5/30/99

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