Actions speak more than words

January 29, 2001|By Robert Wilkins and Jenkins J. Odoms Jr.

GOV. PARRIS N. Glendening said in his State of the State address that racial profiling, the police practice of targeting automobiles for stops and searches based on the race or ethnicity of the driver or passengers, was "wrong," "reprehensible" and "immoral." Without describing a specific plan, Governor Glendening declared that "together, we can and we will end" racial profiling.

In the past, the governor's primary action to stop racial profiling has been to endorse legislation requiring police agencies to gather comprehensive data on the race and ethnicity of those stopped or searched and the reason for it and its outcome. Gathering more data would be helpful, but if Mr. Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend really want to end racial profiling, they would do more to respond to the wealth of data we already have.

Since 1995, the Maryland State Police have gathered data on traffic stops and searches pursuant to a settlement of my federal racial profiling lawsuit. The data shows that when you compare Interstate 95 in Maryland with the New Jersey Turnpike since 1995, the Maryland State Police are just as guilty of racial profiling as the notorious New Jersey State Police.

From 1995 to 1999, the breakdown of drivers searched by the Maryland State Police was 61 percent African-American, 6 percent Hispanic, 32 percent white and 1 percent of another race or ethnicity. In New Jersey from 1994-1999, the breakdown was 53 percent African-American, 24 percent Hispanic, 21 percent white and 2 percent of another race or ethnicity.

The only real difference between New Jersey and Maryland is that the Maryland State Police do not appear to profile both African-Americans and Hispanics as in New Jersey; instead, the Maryland State Police just "mega-profile" African-Americans. This disparity occurs in Maryland even though African-Americans are only 17 percent of the traffic violators, and the proportion of searched cars in which contraband was found was the same for whites and African-Americans.

We already know that Maryland has a serious racial profiling problem. There is nothing wrong with gathering more data, but at this point that is kind of like focusing all efforts on getting a second diagnosis for suffering patients during a plague rather than urgently finding a cure for the disease.

We welcome Mr. Glendening's words. But he and Ms. Townsend oversee the Maryland State Police, and the evidence of racial profiling has heaped into a mountain during the past six years of your watch. At this point, you need to do more than speak. You need to find a cure.

Robert Wilkins is a lawyer with Washington's Public Defender Service. Jenkins J. Odoms, Jr. is president of the Maryland State Conference of the NAACP.

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