Profiling bill's demise was quite personal

This Just In ...

April 10, 2000|By Dan Rodricks

REMEMBER Tessio, the guy who made the bad decision to betray Michael Corleone in "The Godfather"? As he is escorted to his execution by Corleone lieutenants, Tessio (Abe Vigoda) confides that his betrayal was nothing personal. "Tell Mike it was only business. I always liked him," he says, and you believe it.

Tessio was in the Mafia. He was a mobster, but he had standards.

Politicians, on the other hand, sometimes fall into that trap ole Tessio avoided. They make bad decisions for purely personal reasons, and they're not much ashamed to let everyone know about it, either.

We have a fresh example of this in Annapolis.

Here in the closing days of the Maryland General Assembly, Nathaniel J. McFadden and Clarence M. Mitchell IV, among other state senators from Baltimore, decided that it's better to sabotage a legislative remedy for racial profiling by police -- the "driving while black" phenomenon -- than to allow it to pass with Del. Pete Rawlings' name on it.

McFadden and CM4 led the effort to kill Rawlings' bill on racial profiling, then supported a weaker version in the Senate. Rawlings' bill -- approved by the House of Delegates 128-8, but killed by a Senate committee at Mitchell's urging -- would have required police to keep records of each traffic stop, including information about the driver's race. The bill McFadden and CM4 backed simply calls for another study of racial profiling.

This all looks very weird because Rawlings' bill was a priority of the city's delegation when it arrived in Annapolis for the 2000 session. Racial profiling is a hot-button issue for many African-Americans, especially men. They have legitimate concern -- or know from personal experience -- that police frequently make decisions about traffic stops based solely on race.

So, given the importance of this issue to African-Americans at a time when Baltimore police are launching more aggressive attacks on crime, why the political cannibalism in Annapolis?

It's just personal and petty.

Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a man of considerable integrity, had the audacity to demand a performance audit of Morgan State University. He said he wanted to ensure state funds were being spent effectively at a time when Morgan was seeking more autonomy.

Rawlings didn't get exactly what he wanted, but his effort at legislative oversight was seen as some sort of Afro-traitorous offense, or some sort of power play. And so, to get back at Rawlings, Morgan grad McFadden and CM4 went after, of all things, the delegate's civil rights initiative on racial profiling. They led the Senate's small-minded effort to weaken it.

And they did this while, out of the other side of their mouths, saying how important the issue was to their African-American constituents.

Apparently not more important than giving Big Pete the shiv.

It's an inspiring story, isn't it?

Policing themselves?

Del. Talmadge Branch, a driving-while-black victim on more than one occasion and a supporter of Rawlings' bill, was infuriated by the city senators' backing of the weaker bill. But he remains hopeful for a compromise that will make the legislation stronger again before the session ends tonight.

Last month, Branch received a letter from Ron Daniel, who was police commissioner until his split with Mayor Martin O'Malley and resignation March 31. Daniel reported that, as a result of Branch's complaint about the way he was treated by a city officer after an unwarranted traffic stop last year (TJI, July 14), the Police Department had drafted a new form for patrol officers. "All traffic stops will be recorded [on the form] and the operator of any vehicle involved in a traffic stop will be given a reason for the stop in writing," Daniel wrote.

He also apologized for the way Branch was treated and said he believed Rawlings' bill -- the one rejected because of the pettiness described above -- "should go a long way toward making law enforcement sensitive to any appearance of racial profiling."

It'll be interesting to see if Daniel's pledges carry over with the man who replaced him, Ed Norris. If so, city police will by executive order be practicing something Rawlings' bill would have made law.

Talk radio tidbits

After listening to Larry Young's talk radio show (WOLB-AM) for several months now, I offer two observations:

1. LY has one of the few remaining home-grown programs that deal substantively with local topics of interest to Baltimoreans. It's also entertaining, and, in the spirit of American talk radio, the callers betray numerous prejudices and range from cynical to civic-minded, blunt to thoughtful, wise to kooky, outrageous to reasonable, informed to uninformed to informed-only-by-God.

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