Bill targets race-based traffic stops

Measure would require police to keep records, submit data to state

February 17, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

The state trooper who stopped Wyndal Gordon as he drove home from Washington on Interstate 95 one night last spring told him he was speeding.

After a 30-minute wait on the side of the interstate, the trooper let the 30-year-old Baltimore attorney go with no ticket and no warning. Gordon was left with the firm conviction that he had been caught "driving while black."

"No officer is going to get out of his car and say, `I stopped you because you're black,' " Gordon said. "Any old excuse will do."

Yesterday, Gordon brought his story to a House of Delegates committee, joining a procession of witnesses supporting a measure designed to stop police from using race as the reason for pulling over drivers.

The legislation would require police departments to keep records of the race of people who are stopped and submit such data to state officials for analysis. The governor could withhold state funds from any police agency that failed to comply.

"The bill doesn't have all the muscle it needs, but it is a start," Gordon said.

The measure and a companion proposal that would impose civil penalties on police who engage in race-based profiling reflect 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.

The measure, House Bill 225, has support from Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and Maryland State Police Secretary David B. Mitchell. The state association of police chiefs also supports the bill, as do several police unions.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the lead sponsor, said the legislation is needed to restore public confidence in Maryland police, particularly in minority communities.

"I personally believe that law enforcement officers do a great job," said Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat. "But I believe there are a few rogue cops who use race as a basis for stopping people."

Added Townsend: "Racial profiling is a bad abuse of power, and bad law enforcement. Even the perception that it occurs undermines our police."

Data collection

Some agencies have begun to collect data on the race of motorists who are stopped. Maryland State Police collect those statistics for stops by troopers stationed in the Harford County barracks on I-95.

Montgomery County police will soon begin collecting and analyzing such data as part of an agreement ending a three-year federal investigation of claims of racial discrimination and harassment.

While police leaders testified in support of the general thrust of the legislation, they asked for some changes.

Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose said departments should not be required to compile data about an individual officer's traffic stops.

Instead, the data should be compiled for all officers within a precinct or posting. Otherwise, the legislation would create an "overwhelming chilling effect" and make officers reluctant to pull anybody over for fear of being accused of racism, Moose said.

A lobbyist for the Maryland Municipal League, which represents 157 towns and cities, said the group supports the goals of the bill, but opposes it nonetheless because it would be expensive to implement.

Union support

Police unions, which had initially opposed the legislation, are now supporting it.

John R. Stierhoff, a lobbyist for the state Fraternal Order of Police, a group that represents 14,000 officers, said it was "absolutely appropriate" to collect data on traffic stops and predicted that the bill would prompt statistics showing that race-based stops are not a widespread problem.

But some police unions strongly oppose the second bill, which would expressly make it illegal for an officer to begin a criminal investigation, including a traffic stop, solely because of someone's race. That measure, which has not been scheduled for a hearing, would carry a $1,000 civil penalty.

Racially motivated traffic stops are considered violations of federal civil rights laws and have prompted many lawsuits.

The Maryland State Police agreed in 1995 to prohibit troopers from stopping motorists on the basis of race to settle a federal lawsuit brought by a Washington lawyer.

`You feel powerless'

Witnesses yesterday provided several stories about black drivers being pulled over for no apparent reason -- in some cases by state troopers.

Gordon, the Baltimore lawyer, said he hears about it often in his law practice, but found out how it feels firsthand when the trooper pulled him over.

"It's frustrating," he said. "It's embarrassing. You feel powerless because there's nothing you can do about it."

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