Legislators face off over racial profiling

At a college summit, 2 differ on approach

May 05, 2000|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Two Baltimore legislators who were on opposite sides of a failed bill that would have cracked down on racial profiling took part last night in a forum on the issue, along with legal experts and Anne Arundel County's police chief.

Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, who led a successful effort to defeat the legislation in the General Assembly, and a bill co-sponsor, Del. Talmadge Branch, offered differing viewpoints on racial profiling at a conference at Anne Arundel Community College. Mitchell and Branch are Baltimore Democrats.

Mitchell said that racist attitudes that permeate police departments must be addressed before laws are passed to stop the practice of racial profiling -- the use of race as a reason for an officer to stop and search someone.

"If we don't deal with how departments treat their very own, then the law will simply be window dressing," said Mitchell, one of several black state senators who worked to kill a bill sponsored by Baltimore Del. Howard P. Rawlings that would have required police departments to keep race-based records of traffic stops.

The senators had objected to Rawlings' call for an audit of Morgan State University in Baltimore.

Branch said he sees no need to wait until police agencies end internal discrimination to take a stand against racial profiling.

"The people in my community can't wait for that," said Branch, the incoming head of the Legislative Black Caucus. "The people in that community are stopped because of the way they wear their clothes and hair."

Branch told the audience of approximately 70 people that his experience as the victim of racial profiling led him to seek a law to stop it.

He described an incident he said occurred last June when he was stopped by a Baltimore police officer after leaving a restaurant in Little Italy. Talmadge said the officer's tone was "very abrasive, very nasty and quite despicable."

"I remained as humble as I could because I felt threatened," he said. "I've been stopped on a number of occasions, but this was the first time I had ever felt so violated."

As head of the caucus, Branch said he will make racial profiling legislation a priority in the 2001 General Assembly session.

Last night's conference was organized by the Institute for Criminal Justice, Legal Studies and Public Service at Anne Arundel Community College.

"The whole objective is to come to some solutions and to build the relations between the police and the community," said Tyrone Powers, institute director.

Other panelists included Gerald G. Stansbury, president of the Anne Arundel County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; J. Wendall Gordon, a civil rights attorney; and Larry Young, host of a Baltimore radio show.

Another forum participant was William Mertens, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney involved in racial profiling litigation against Maryland State Police since 1992.

He said troopers are engaging in racial profiling despite a 1995 settlement in which the agency agreed to keep race records on traffic stops, and a 1997 federal ruling that police discriminated in traffic stops along Interstate 95.

"Police do not always deal with the problem willingly," Mertens said.

Anne Arundel County police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan, who said he ended a zero-tolerance policy in his department, said that he was "raised in a racist society."

A zero-tolerance crime-fighting strategy requires police officers to address all crimes, including minor ones.

"I'm committed to doing everything in my power to see that the officers in my department don't mistreat the people we're supposed to serve," the chief said. "I know there are racist individuals that work in the police profession, and I'm sure that out of 659 officers, some work for me."

Shanahan said the challenge he constantly faces is to balance a person's civil rights with an officer's ability to do his or her job.

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