Rawlings calls for laws to block racial profiling

Md. delegate cites `daily humiliation' of black drivers

January 12, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

One of Maryland's most powerful lawmakers is planning a push to repeal the unwritten law against "driving while black" -- an effort that could put the General Assembly and Gov. Parris N. Glendening on the spot during the legislative session that begins today.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, plans to introduce some of the strongest legislation in the nation to ban the police practice of "racial profiling" -- using ethnicity as a factor in deciding whom to stop and whom to search.

Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat, said his proposal will include sanctions against jurisdictions that fail to curb the practice, which could mobilize opposition from police organizations and local officials.

The legislation reflects growing concern nationally about a perceived -- and in some cases documented -- tendency among law enforcement officers to detain and search blacks and other minorities at a much higher rate than whites.

Rawlings said racial profiling is an important civil rights issue. "It is a daily occurrence. It's part of the daily humiliation that blacks experience in this country," he said.

Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, opposes such bills but is seeing them crop up all over. "In the last year and a half or so, there's been a national focus on such legislation," he said.

About 20 state legislatures -- including Maryland's -- took up racial-profiling bills in 1999, said John Crew, who tracks such legislation for the national American Civil Liberties Union.

Crew said only Connecticut and North Carolina passed meaningful anti-profiling bills. But the issue is returning with greater momentum this year after New Jersey's well-publicized admission that its state police had used race as a factor in stopping and searching motorists.

A report by the New Jersey attorney general provided statistical evidence that police have been singling out blacks for extra scrutiny for years. The report found that from 1994 to 1999, in central and southern New Jersey, 77 percent of drivers asked to agree to a search were black or Hispanic. Nineteen percent of those stops ended in an arrest.

Some New Jersey officials said they were startled by the numbers, but they came as no surprise to many blacks, especially men. It is rare to find an adult black male driver of any social class or profession -- including legislators -- who cannot recite a personal account of having been pulled over by police for no apparent reason besides race.

The use of racial profiling by the Maryland State Police has been extensively documented. In 1995, the state settled a lawsuit alleging profiling by promising to cease using race as a factor in traffic stops and to keep records of searches and arrests. Two years later, a federal judge ruled that evidence showed a "pattern and practice of discrimination" in traffic stops along Interstate 95 in northeastern Maryland.

Even with that evidence, the General Assembly has shown little inclination to deal with the issue. Last year, a mild bill to create a task force to look into the issue was allowed to die when the House and Senate passed different versions.

Besides being stronger, this year's legislation will have more powerful sponsorship. Rawlings, as head of a committee that reviews every legislator's pet spending project, can exercise considerable leverage when he cares deeply about an issue.

His leading co-sponsor, Del. Lisa A. Gladden, said the package will include two bills, one of which would make the use of race profiling a misdemeanor carrying a civil penalty up to $1,000.

Gladden, also a West Baltimore Democrat, said the other bill would require local police agencies to compile statistics on the race of people who are stopped and to submit the data to the state attorney general. Among other provisions, the bill would give the governor authority to withhold state aid from law enforcement agencies that show a pattern of race profiling.

The sanctions in the legislation and the fact that it would apply to all local police agencies make it one of the strongest measures being proposed in any state legislature. In many states, bills simply requiring recordkeeping have been a tough sell.

Suzanne Smith, Maryland legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that judging by the drafts she has seen, "it is a bill with teeth."

"It's entirely possible that our bill could be a model for other states," Smith said.

That is not an attractive prospect for the FOP's Pasco. His organization routinely opposes all such bills -- even the ones that only call for the collection of racial data on traffic stops.

"This legislation has often been offered as if it's a foregone conclusion that officers -- both black and white -- are racist. And nothing could be further from the truth," Pasco said.

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