Race and Traffic Stops: Issue is Familiar One! 

Race and Traffic Stops: Issue is Familiar One! 
Posted by FoM on March 02, 1999 at 08:46:23 PT

Lawsuits are being won against police for singling out blacks and Latinos. Statistics are bolstering them. Some cases are focused on Interstate 95. 
Robert Wilkins, a black, Harvard-educated lawyer, could see this was no ordinary speeding ticket. The Maryland state police officers were taking too long.So he climbed out of the rented Cadillac that drizzly dawn in 1992 to find officers questioning his cousin, the driver. Wilkins' aunt and uncle were with them, returning from the Chicago funeral of Wilkins' grandfather."'They want to search the car for drugs,"' Wilkins recalls his cousin saying.Wilkins, a Washington lawyer, told the police they had no reason to suspect a crime; he would not allow a search. So they detained the family for about an hour so that a drug-sniffing dog could check the car."It was a very humiliating experience," he recalled yesterday. "We had to stand out in the rain. The traffic passed and saw us standing there, like criminals. The police just said it was standard policy."Wilkins sued, and Maryland's state police rules will never be the same. Lawyers unearthed a police memo advising that "drug couriers were likely to be black males and females." The state settled the suit for $95,600. The police agreed to retrain officers and take other steps to avoid targeting minorities on the road. But the basic allegation -- that police single out people of color for car stops -- did not end there. It has arisen again and again, in class-action lawsuits from Gloucester and Delaware Counties to Toledo, Ohio, to Eagle County, Colorado; in a new suit in Maryland; in judges' findings; in calls for federal legislation -- and now, in the firing of New Jersey State Police Superintendent Carl A. Williams. Williams was fired on Sunday by Gov. Whitman after saying in a newspaper interview that he had warned his officers against profiling, but that he believed minorities conduct most cocaine and marijuana trafficking in this country.His comments came at a time when New Jersey officials are appealing a 1996 Superior Court decision in which a Gloucester County judge threw out criminal charges against 19 black drug defendants, saying the state police had "allowed, condoned, cultivated and tolerated discrimination . . . in its crusade to rid New Jersey of the scourge of drugs."The judge based his decision, in part, on research conducted by John Lamberth, a Temple University professor who used a staff of observers in Maryland and New Jersey to keep records of the racial composition of motorists on the states' highways, and then compared them with police records of traffic stops and vehicle searches.In each case, Lamberth said yesterday, his research found disproportionate numbers of black and Hispanic motorists targeted by police.Lamberth, widely seen as an expert on racial profiling, found that in New Jersey, about 15 percent of motorists on the turnpike were black, but they represented 35 percent of those pulled over by police.Those figures were echoed in statistics released last month by New Jersey Attorney General Peter Verniero, showing that in two months of 1997, three of four turnpike drivers stopped by state police were minorities. In Maryland, in 1996 and 1997, Lamberth's observers drove on Interstate 95 at 60 miles an hour, and noted something else: About 98 percent of the cars around them were speeding."With almost everybody violating the law, police have a pretext to stop almost everyone on the road," Lamberth said. "Why do they stop such a disproportionate number of minority motorists?" His research found that although 17.5 percent of the traffic violators on I-95 north of Baltimore were African American, 29 percent of those stopped, and 71.3 percent of those searched by state police, were African American. About 18 percent of drivers were stopped after being detected speeding on radar, he said. But of those that state police stopped on their own discretion, about 40 percent were black, Lamberth said.Such statistics helped persuade U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake to rule that the ACLU had made a "reasonable showing" that Maryland troopers on I-95 were continuing to engage in a "pattern and practice" of racial discrimination, despite Wilkins' lawsuit settlement. Blake's ruling led to new requirements for police there.Lamberth's assertions rankle some police officials. In a Sept. 11 letter to the Washington Post, Maryland State Police Superintendent David B. Mitchell questioned Lamberth's methods of data collection, asserting that very few vehicle stops result in a search of the car, and of those searched, more than 35 percent result in arrests."Only a very small portion of the African Americans stopped for traffic violations were asked for consent to search," Mitchell wrote.In the aftermath of Williams' firing on Sunday, Rick Whelan, president of the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police, defended the practice of using racial profiles if the goal is to target certain gangs involved in criminal activity."If it was an Irish gang, that would be a minority," Whelan said. "The Hispanics are going to trust an Hispanic, and a black is going to trust a black, and a white is going to trust a white. That's just life.. . . That's how you go after them."Even so, courts across the country have consistently found that profiling -- singling out people for investigation or traffic stops based on their race -- goes on, and that when it does, it is unconstitutional. Some crime experts say the practice may not be very effective, either."You can't . . . arrest people on generalizations," said Dan Coburn, a retired New Jersey Superior Court judge and former head of the regional public defender's office in Morris County. "You catch too many fish in far too large a net."Philadelphia Police Commissioner John F. Timoney said the target has to be very specific if the case is to hold up in court. Drug trafficking, he said, "is not an exclusive problem with Jamaicans," as Williams suggested. "You've got Chinese. You've got all kinds of people," he said.Timoney asserted that Philadelphia police do not use racial profiles.A police civilian advisory board's 1997-98 study of department logs and statistics in four Philadelphia police districts found that African Americans were consistently overrepresented in officers' stops of drivers and pedestrians.Last year, in response to concerns from U.S. Rep John Conyers Jr., (D., Mich.) and other lawmakers who say they are bombarded with complaints about unfair traffic stops, the House passed a bill to require the Justice Department to conduct a two-year, $500,000 nationwide study to determine whether blacks are being harassed through routine checks. The bill failed to pass the Senate."There are virtually no African American males -- including congressmen, actors, athletes and office workers -- who have not been stopped at one time or another for an alleged traffic violation, namely 'driving while black,' " said Conyers. One of those African American males is Wilkins, now 37. After his suit was settled, civil liberties lawyers went back to court, claiming that Maryland state police are still profiling.Wilkins recalled how, on that morning in 1992, police had told him they were having "a problem with crack" transported by young blacks in rental cars."If you're stopping everybody you see in rental cars," Wilkins said yesterday, "you're violating a lot of people's rights."  1998 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
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