ACLU Challenges Pennsylvania Legislature to Combat Racial Profiling

December 14, 1999 12:00 am

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HARRISBURG, PA — At a public hearing today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania called on the state General Assembly to enact tough legislation to combat racial profiling, the police practice of stopping and searching motorists based on race.

Appearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Larry Frankel, Executive Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, urged lawmakers to pass legislation that would explicitly prohibit racial profiling and that would also give citizens the right to sue if they are the victims of racial profiling. Frankel also expressed the ACLU’s support for the collection of statistics regarding traffic stops and searches.

Both in Pennsylvania and nationally, the fight against the practice of racial profiling has been one of the ACLU’s highest priorities this year. In June, the ACLU released a report, “Driving While Black: Racial Profiling on Our Nation’s Highways,” that documented the practice of substituting skin color for evidence as a grounds for suspicion by law enforcement officials.

Today’s public hearing was prompted by the series of hearings held by the Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee. During the summer, the committee looked at the question of discriminatory law enforcement. Hearings were held in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg and representatives of the ACLU testified at each of those hearings.

Frankel discussed the widespread impact of discriminatory law enforcement. “Racial profiling harms those individuals who are arbitrarily stopped, ” he said. “Racial profiling also harms all of us because it undermines the credibility of our criminal justice system and the trust we place in that system.”

Just last week, he said, a major national poll released by the Gallup Organization revealed that there is a national consensus that racial profiling is widespread and wrong.

Frankel said that the enactment of a statute that would permit citizens to sue for being stopped because of their race would be “a real tool both for deterring such conduct and remedying the injuries that occur as a result of racial profiling. Individuals who are harmed by this unjust practice should not be left without a means for obtaining compensation for the harm they have suffered.”

— testimony follows —



DECEMBER 14, 1999

Good afternoon Chairman Birmelin and other members of the Subcommittee on Crimes and Corrections. My name is Larry Frankel and I am the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. I want to thank you for inviting the ACLU to present its views on racial profiling.

The ACLU has had considerable experience with the issue of discriminatory law enforcement. In the mid-1980s, we represented a class of 1,500 persons who had been stopped, searched and in some cases arrested as part of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Operation Cold Turkey. For a period of 72 hours, the Philadelphia police targeted a number of intersections. Any person standing in or passing through those intersections was presumed to be part of the drug trade. Almost all of the intersections were in predominantly minority communities and most of the people adversely affected by Operation Cold Turkey were African-American or Latino. In only a few instances were drugs actually found. Eventually, the City of Philadelphia paid our clients $500,000 in damages.

In the 1990s we represented a class of African-American and Latino motorists who were stopped on Interstate 95 by the Tinicum Police Department. We claimed that they had been detained solely because of their race. The evidence showed that the class representatives had been stopped by the police as they were passing the Philadelphia International Airport. They were returning to their home from a church meeting. At one point, while they were stopped, one of them asked for further clarification as to why they had been pulled over. The police officer responded: “You are a young black man driving a nice car.” Tinicum Township ultimately paid $250,000 to motorists who had been wrongfully stopped because of their race.

Last year, our office reviewed enormous quantities of records from the Philadelphia Police Department. We found a disturbing pattern of what appears to be the disproportionate stopping of motor vehicles being operated by African-Americans as well as African-American pedestrians. We produced a report that was provided to the Philadelphia Police Department. Our analysis of the data has already had a positive impact on police practices in Philadelphia. The Department, to its credit, has produced a training video addressing the issue of proper stops of vehicles and pedestrians.

The ACLU’s experience is not limited to Philadelphia and we receive calls from all across the state on this issue. We heard the testimony that was presented at the three public hearings that were convened by the Democratic Policy Committee throughout Pennsylvania this summer. There were many compelling stories from all corners of the state about racially motivated law enforcement actions.

Lest anyone forget, on April 20, 1999, the New Jersey Attorney General released his Interim Report of the State Police Review Team Regarding Allegations of Racial Profiling. Racial profiling has become an issue around the nation. In 1999 concerns over racial profiling have produced significant and concrete actions on the part of the federal government, state legislatures and state and local law enforcement agencies.

In June, President Clinton ordered all federal law enforcement agencies to collect race data on their stop and search practices. The states of North Carolina and Connecticut have enacted laws intended to combat racial profiling. Legislation has been introduced in states all across this country. A growing number of law enforcement agencies have voluntarily agreed to collect race data on traffic stops and searches. The New York Attorney General just completed a study on this issue. Even law enforcement organizations are now calling for comprehensive data collection efforts. Recently, the International Association of Chiefs of Police went on record in support of the need for data collection efforts. [Just this last Saturday, it was reported that next month the Michigan State Police will begin tracking the race of all drivers pulled over for traffic stops. The chief of the Michigan State Police is the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.] The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the National Black Police Association support data collection. Last week, a Gallup Poll was released that demonstrated that there is a national consensus that racial profiling is widespread and wrong. The majority of Americans — both black and white — believe that racial profiling is unfair.

While the ACLU knows that there will always be a few who doubt that racial profiling is a problem, we believe that most people who look at, and think about, this issue recognize that discriminatory law enforcement is a major problem facing our society. Racial profiling harms those individuals who are arbitrarily stopped. Racial profiling also harms all of us because it undermines the credibility of our criminal justice system and the trust we place in that system.

Therefore, the ACLU of Pennsylvania is not only calling on the General Assembly of Pennsylvania to pass a law that calls for the collection of race data with regard to traffic stops and searches. We are also urging the General Assembly to enact a statute that declares racial profiling to be illegal and that explicitly creates a private right of action for individuals who have been improperly detained because of their race.

Those who believe that racial profiling is not a significant problem should not worry about such a law. If racial profiling is not happening then we won’t see any cases. However, for those of us who believe that discriminatory practices do occur, such a statute would represent a real tool both for deterring such conduct and for remedying the injuries that occur as a result of racial profiling. Individuals who are harmed by this unjust practice should not be left without a means for obtaining compensation for the harm they have suffered.

And while we advocate for creating a private right of action as the best means for achieving justice, we are also supportive of the collection of statistics. We think that it would be prudent for the state and local law enforcement agencies to try and determine if they have a problem with racial profiling and whether certain officers need further training. Failing to even try to ascertain whether there is a problem could prove rather costly if and when a lawsuit is filed against a law enforcement agency. An agency that has not even attempted to evaluate its practices and procedures could find itself in the difficult position of denying the reality of egregious misconduct which the agency has never even tried to monitor.

The ACLU encourages you to consider how to remedy the issue of racial profiling. Society can little afford toleration of discriminatory law enforcement practices. Thank you for inviting us to testify here today. I will try to answer any questions you may have.

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