Saying state police withhold data, ACLU sues

HOw complaints of racial profiling are investigated is at issue in Baltimore County Circuit Court

September 27, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN REPORTER

Saying that Maryland State Police are withholding information on how complaints of racial profiling are investigated -- and violating the public's right to government information -- the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit yesterday against the agency .

The suit, filed in Baltimore County Circuit Court, alleges that the state police are improperly withholding records about any disciplinary actions taken in response to complaints of racial profiling and that the agency is charging excessively for records requested by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People under the Maryland Public Information Act.

"We find it worrisome that the state police are being so unforthcoming with information," said Deborah A. Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland. "Citizens should have a right to get information from their government, particularly in a situation where they're trying to determine whether strides have been made in eliminating racial profiling."

Compliance claim

Greg Shipley, a spokesman for the state police, said the agency has complied with the Maryland Public Information Act, providing nearly 3,000 pages of records that a team of employees collected over several months from divisions, units and barracks.

"The Maryland State Police has worked diligently for years with [the ACLU and NAACP] to provide requested information and oversight opportunity relating to the very important issue of racial profiling," Shipley said in a written statement.

Five years ago, the state police agreed to make sweeping changes in the way troopers make traffic stops -- including documenting the race of drivers stopped and obtaining written permission before searching vehicles -- to answer accusations of racial profiling.

As part of a 2003 consent decree, the state police were required to distribute brochures explaining motorists' constitutional rights and to provide quarterly reports to the NAACP about complaints of racial profiling.

The agreement settled a 1993 federal lawsuit against the state police that was filed by the ACLU and several motorists who said troopers stopped them based upon their race. The consent decree is to expire in May.

Shipley said state police troopers distribute about half-million brochures annually and that the agency "vigorously" investigates complaints of racial profiling.

State police defended

"We are one of the most regulated, supervised and scrutinized police departments in the country and are very proud of what we've done to ensure that racial profiling has no place in this department," he said in an interview. "The Maryland State police has not, does not, nor will it ever condone racial profiling."

Brian L. Schwalb, one of the attorneys representing the Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches, said a disproportionate number of African-American and Hispanic drivers are stopped and their vehicles searched by troopers.

Police records show that 68 percent of drivers who were stopped and searched on Interstate 95 last year were African-American, he said. In 2005, the proportion was 69 percent, Schwalb said.

In the past five years, Schwalb said, more than 80 motorists have lodged racial-profiling complaints against troopers. All of the complaints were dismissed by state police as invalid, he said.

The complaints prompted the civil rights organization to ask for information about the department's investigations of racial profiling allegations under the Maryland Public Information Act, Schwalb said.

In the statement, Shipley said that the agency provides information about internal affairs investigations of racial complaints to the ACLU "to the extent allowed by law" in quarterly reports.

`Troubling'`The attorneys were able to review some of the documents requested, including policy manuals designed to prevent and deter racial profiling, according to the lawsuit. Some of them were "troubling," Jeon said, adding that training material about dealing with Hispanics contained stereotypes and misrepresentations.

The NAACP paid $11,000 this summer for copying and collection of records, according to the lawsuit.

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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