Steve Miller; The Washington Times
March 12, 2001, Monday, Final Edition
Copyright 2001 News World Communications, Inc.
The Washington Times
March 12, 2001, Monday, Final Edition
(WASHINGTON) -- President Bush's instructions to federal agencies to begin collecting racial data on traffic and street stops, to make good on his promise to end racial profiling, has rallied both civil rights leaders and law enforcement officers.
The Rev. Al Sharpton on Wednesday made his way to Capitol Hill, beseeching any lawmaker who would listen to meet with "victims" of racial profiling.
This has upset law enforcement officers, including many black officers. "Some groups are never going to be satisfied," Maurice Foster, executive director of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement, says of those seeking to end profiling.
Profiling of all kinds is a long-standing method of police work, but the new urgency to end it has divided officers on the street and law enforcement administrators.
Attorney General John Ashcroft, announcing his assessment of profiling on March 1, said that through the compilation of data, "we would be able to develop a summary of the types of contacts that exist between federal law enforcement officials and the public, to estimate the extent of such contacts."
The attorney general supports Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, in his advocacy of the Traffic Stops Statistics Study Act, which the last three Congresses have declined to enact.
Mr. Ashcroft's goal of implementing strict record-keeping of the racial data involving traffic and street stops is opposed by certain law enforcement officials because it could keep police officers off the streets, says Robert Scully, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations.
Furthermore, the fear is that the demand for record keeping at the federal level will be felt almost immediately at the municipal level.
"This is going to take more of the valuable time away from police work to do more administrative work," says Mr. Scully, whose group represents 225,000 police officers. "And when you see Congress scrambling to address an issue, you can bet on the local level that people will do the same."
Mr. Scully says the extra administrative work will undermine the quality of policing in many areas. "The overall effect will be less time on the street. The idea behind police work is to protect and to serve, you will be taking valuable time away from officers," he says.
The president's instructions don't play well on the streets, say many officers.
"You don't need to be in Washington to understand somebody's intuition," says Clyde Venson, executive director of the National United Law Enforcement Officers Association.
Profiling, minus its "racial" aspect, is acknowledged by most law enforcement groups to be a part of policing. The group of teen-agers - black, white or brown - wearing colors, for example, is generally a sign of gang affiliation.
"If I'm told that the suspects are a group of Hell's Angels, who do you think I'm going to be looking for?" says Sheriff A.J. Johnson of Eagle County, Colo.
The practice of racial profiling first gained public attention in the mid-1980s, when the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) released guidelines that "profiled" drug couriers in several states.
In 1986, the DEA's Operation Pipeline called on police departments across the country to search for narcotics traffickers on major highways.
The racial or ethnic background of typical dealers varied depending on the area. In some regions, for example, agencies were told that Hispanics and West Indians dominated the drug trade and therefore warranted extra scrutiny.
Sheriff Johnson thought the idea was good policing policy and tracked drug dealers driving through Colorado, using Operation Pipeline guidelines beginning in 1988. Then his deputies pulled over two black men with three pounds of crack cocaine in their car in 1989.
A civil lawsuit followed, charging the widespread use of profiling, that cost the department nearly $1 million in damages. Sheriff Johnson is no longer enthusiastic about profiling and is wary of the Bush administration's data-collecting initiative.
He says his department was ahead of others in that it routinely collected data of traffic stops on its own initiative. But in court, after using a procedure advocated by federal authorities, the collected figures were used as part of the plaintiff's case.
"I gathered a bunch of numbers and they were used against me," says Sheriff Johnson, who is now in his fifth term. "With this new idea, what is going to happen is that departments are going to start calculating their stops, and say, 'Well, I stopped X amount of blacks, so now I have to stop X amount of whites to balance it out.'
"And so much of the time you don't even know the race of the person you are pulling over."
At least eight states have undertaken studies of ticket issuances, searches and traffic stops over the past decade. Some have found no indication of profiling, such as a 1999 analysis of ticketing by state troopers in Texas.
New Jersey State Police compiled data in 1988 that showed that 76.3 percent of all drug and weapons arrests on the New Jersey Turnpike involved blacks, but administrators said race was not a factor in the arrests.
The president's instructions addresses an issue that may or may not be solved by data collection, says David Harris, a University of Toledo law professor who has written extensively about racial profiling.
"The effect of the data collection bill is the beginning of a process," Mr. Harris says.