Fumbling on racial profiling

Politics: A nasty squabble among legislators prevented them from doing the right thing.

April 16, 2000|By Kweisi Mfume

All the world was watching on Tuesday, April 11 when President Clinton traveled to Annapolis, the state capital closest to the White House, to witness history as Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed the law making Maryland the first state to require built-in safety locks on handguns.

But while the latest round in the hotly debated battle over gun control focused attention on the work by the governor and the Maryland General Assembly, some of Maryland's African-American legislators found themselves embroiled in a different battle. A battle that inflicted a mortal wound on what could have been another first for the state -- a law cracking down on racial profiling by police officers.

Racial profiling occurs when police officers rely on racial stereotypes to target suspects. Often, it is part of a set of abusive -- and sometimes deadly -- tactics that escalate from unwarranted searches to excessive use of force. Recently, reports surfaced on profiling aimed at black women by U.S. Customs Service agents. It resulted in about 1,200 strip searches of innocent women returning from vacations and business trips in the Caribbean. While no contraband was found, the humiliation visited upon them cries out for government action.

Passing the racial profiling bill sponsored by Del. Howard P. Rawlings would have turned the national spotlight on the compelling need to eliminate the "driving while black" phenomenon prevailing across much of the country. Like the strip-searching of black women, it too cries out for action. Just ask Del. Talmadge Branch of Baltimore, who, like so many others was stopped and harassed for no apparent reason.

Rawlings' bill, which had passed in the House, would have required police agencies to keep detailed records of each traffic stop, including information about the driver's race. This data would have been submitted to researchers at the University of Maryland, College Park for analysis. State legislators in Connecticut and North Carolina have passed similar laws.

Instead, some of Maryland's black lawmakers aimed a verbal barrage of pot shots at Rawlings, the longtime House Appropriations Committee chairman. They killed the bill in a Senate committee and sponsored a weaker version that had only a remote chance of passing chambers with the legislature's adjournment deadline quickly approaching.

The weaker bill died a quiet and unceremonious death, leaving Marylanders unprotected against racial profiling and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and many others are very disappointed.

Rawlings' racial profiling bill had been slated as a priority in the 2000 session by Baltimore's delegation. It is unconscionable that a bill to help the police and the black community was voted down by black legislators.

The quest to curtail Rawlings' power allegedly began because he called for a performance audit of Morgan State University. Rawlings and several other members of the legislature are Morgan graduates. Rawlings' opponents used Morgan as if it was a political football and created the impression that the university had something to hide. As a former student, professor and current member of the university's board of regents, I'm one of many who resent this.

This unprecedented public spectacle by African-American lawmakers in the back yard of the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization is troublesome.

The NAACP will continue its strong advocacy against law enforcement practices that subject innocent people to harassment, humiliation and unfair treatment based solely on race. The NAACP's work with Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, to get Congress to address racial profiling on a national level is but one example.

We've also called on Congress to pass legislation that creates a national minimum standard for law enforcement agencies as outlined in the Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act of 2000.

This act would address law enforcement misconduct from a variety of angles by eliminating the hodgepodge of what is acceptable behavior by policing officials.

The bill is a comprehensive attempt to address a problem that has been festering in our nation for decades.

The fact of the matter is, if you are a person of color living in the United States, many police officers often look at you differently and with a greater level of suspicion. They always have, and until something is done to raise the level of accountability, many will continue to do so.

Thus it is particularly troubling that at a time when people across the country are actively galvanizing support to combat the practice of racial profiling, members of the nation's second-largest black state caucus let personalities sidetrack a chance to correct an injustice.

Unfortunately, for opponents of racial profiling, a prime opportunity to raise the level of accountability for law enforcement agencies in Maryland was abandoned by low-level politics.

Kweisi Mfume is the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

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