The time has come to end racial profiling

December 11, 2000|By David A. Love

THE NEWS ABOUT racial profiling in New Jersey came as no surprise to me. One day several years ago, I was driving my brother to college and was traveling on the New Jersey Turnpike. A young, white state trooper followed us for more than a mile and then pulled us over to the side of the road.

We were driving the speed limit. My brother asked the officer why he had stopped us. "You were changing lanes too fast," he replied, and gave us a speeding ticket.

I was angry, but under no illusion that my Harvard alumni bumper sticker would immunize my brother and me from racial profiling. In far too many cases in this country, when police officers see a black face, they do not see a college student, or a professional or a taxpaying citizen. They see a criminal.

The state of New Jersey recently released nearly 100,000 pages of internal memos showing that racial profiling was accepted policy for more than a decade. At least 80 percent of searches carried out on the New Jersey Turnpike over the past decade were of black and Latino motorists.

According to New Jersey Attorney General John J. Farmer, for seven out of every 10 minority drivers whose cars were searched, "there was nothing there. From a social policy point of view, that's a disaster."

The recently released memo- randa point to a pervasive culture of racism among the New Jersey State Police. In one document, a former trooper acknowledges that he was "schooled" in racial profiling by his superiors and that he invented violations to justify traffic stops.

Another document contains the complaint of a black veteran police sergeant who says he was stopped more than 40 times by his fellow state troopers. Other memos implicate state officials who acknowledged that racial profiling is ingrained in police culture, yet were indifferent to stopping it.

The recent revelations in New Jersey could lead to the overturning of as many as 150 criminal cases resulting from traffic stops.

"While racial profiling did not begin in this state or under this administration, history will show that the end of racial profiling in America did indeed begin in this state and under this administration," said New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.

Ms. Whitman, who once defended her police against charges of racial profiling, came under fire recently when a 4-year-old photo of the governor surfaced. The 1996 photo shows Ms. Whitman frisking a black man who is spread against a wall. At the time of the incident, Ms. Whitman was riding with a state police crime unit in Camden. Prior to the photo op, an officer had searched the man -- who had committed no crime -- and found no weapons or drugs.

Ms. Whitman is right when she says New Jersey did not create the problem. It is a national one, and the federal government has played a role in it. According to the New York Times, the Drug Enforcement Administration and Department of Transportation "have financed and taught an array of drug interdiction programs that emphasize the ethnic and racial characteristics of narcotic organizations and teach local police ways to single out cars and drivers who are smuggling."

Even President Clinton's staff has been victimized by racial profiling.

"I had two people who work for me in the White House who were wrongly stopped, handcuffed and hassled the other day," Mr. Clinton recently said. He was referring to his White House director of presidential personnel and his personal historian, both African-American. They were stopped by police in a Washington suburb on suspicion of auto theft.

We need to get rid of racial profiling now.

David A. Love is a public interest scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. This article was prepared for the Progressive Media Project as part of its "Black Voices" series and was distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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