WASHINGTON - Attorney General John Ashcroft pledged yesterday to seek an end to racial profiling - a vow that came during a testy meeting with black lawmakers who have clashed with Ashcroft in the past and still question his commitment to civil rights.
"Too many of our citizens have cause to doubt our nation's justice when the law points a finger of suspicion at groups, instead of individuals," Ashcroft said after the meeting. "All our citizens are created equal and must be treated equally."
Despite his words, the lawmakers said they remain wary of Ashcroft, whom they've accused of racial insensitivity and whose nomination as the nation's chief law enforcement officer they vigorously opposed.
"It was definitely not a love-in," said Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, the vice chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, which held a 30-minute meeting with Ashcroft at which members grilled him about racial profiling, election reform and Ashcroft's own record on race.
"I don't think he made any friends," said Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, who said the meeting grew hotter the longer it lasted. "We thought he'd be a little more open, a little more give-and-take."
In his address to Congress Tuesday night, President Bush directed Ashcroft to develop specific recommendations to end racial profiling - the practice by which police single out suspects based on their racial or ethnic characteristics.
Now, black leaders are waiting to see what action Ashcroft will take.
"He said the right things," Cummings said after the meeting. "But the question is not what you say, but what you do."
The attorney general, calling the meeting "frank and candid," said he would develop recommendations and enforce existing civil rights laws to crack down on racial profiling.
Though Bush elevated racial profiling by singling it out in his speech, it is not clear how much the federal government can do to discourage the practice since state and local authorities have far more control over how police departments operate.
"The federal government can't tell states what to do, so it really is a state and local issue," said Rachel King, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is fighting for tougher anti-discrimination laws and backs civil rights suits to address the problem.
Still, King said, the Bush administration has options. It can block federal grants to police departments where racial profiling is found to exist.
"The biggest power the federal government has is the power of the purse," said King. "The federal government has an enormous ability to control behavior through the money it gives."
But federal attempts to intervene on racial profiling have stumbled so far. For the past two years, a bill requiring the attorney general, along with state and local law enforcement agencies, to conduct a study on the prevalence of racial profiling has failed to make it to the president's desk.
Opponents argued that the raw data collected in such a study - by failing to provide adequate context - might mistakenly suggest that some local police agencies were engaging in profiling.
The federal government does have another weapon: Civil rights investigations.
The Justice Department has reached racial profiling-related settlements with law enforcement agencies in five jurisdictions, including Montgomery County, since 1994, the year the department was granted the authority to conduct such probes, a Justice official said.
An additional 13 such investigations are under way, the official added.
Some law enforcement groups now criticize the Clinton administration for those investigations, which they've portrayed as witch hunts, and hope for relief from Bush.
"We wouldn't want to see the Department of Justice come in and take over state and local police departments on a mere perfunctory allegation," said Johnny Hughes, a lobbyist for the National Troopers Coalition and a retired major with the Maryland State Police.
Instead, the group wants more federal money for sensitivity training programs.
In Maryland, Gov. Parris N. Glendening is championing a bill that would require officers to fill out forms explaining who gets pulled over and why. The bill, which is expected to pass, would take effect July 1.
On Capitol Hill, caucus members said Ashcroft told them he hoped Congress would adopt legislation to collect data on how police target motorists in routine traffic stops.
According to Cummings, Ashcroft said that if Congress does not act within six months, Justice would step in with its own plan.
Caucus members said they were not satisfied with the former Missouri senator's responses on several race-related matters.
Ashcroft said he would not reopen the investigation into the 1999 death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant who was shot 41 times by New York City police, setting off violent protests.
Four officers were acquitted of criminal charges, and the Justice Department decided not to bring civil rights charges against them.
Ashcroft also did not back away from his opposition to Ronnie White, a black judge whose confirmation to a federal judgeship he torpedoed while in the Senate.
But he said that he would not oppose White if Bush were to name him to the federal bench a second time, as caucus members have urged, the lawmakers reported.