ACLU Sues Rhode Island Police Department for Failing to Comply with State's Racial Profiling Law

March 4, 2002 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. –The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today filed a lawsuit against the Woonsocket Police Department for failing to comply with the state’s so-called “Driving While Black or Brown” law.

Today marks the second time the ACLU has been forced to file a lawsuit to ensure a police department’s compliance with the state’s racial profiling law. In November 2001, the ACLU sued the Providence Police Department for failing to collect traffic stops statistics; that department is now under a court order requiring independent monitoring to ensure compliance.

“While the ACLU has worked to ensure that Providence police are in compliance with this important law, we need to make sure that all municipalities are complying if we are to keep the goal of this study from being undermined,” said ACLU volunteer attorney Carolyn Mannis, who filed the lawsuit today in Rhode Island Superior Court

The law, which took effect in January 2000, requires all police departments in the state to collect data on traffic stops they conduct in order to determine if “racial profiling” may be occurring. Racial profiling occurs when the police target someone for investigation on the basis of that person’s race, national origin, or ethnicity. Examples of profiling are the use of race to determine which drivers to stop for minor traffic violations (“driving while black or brown”) and the use of race to determine which motorists or pedestrians to search for contraband.

After reviewing the traffic stop statistics for the first nine months of 2001, the ACLU wrote to Woonsocket Police Chief Herve Landreville in January, noting that the town’s statistics were quite low when compared to those of other police departments in the state. Recognizing that there might be a legitimate reason for those statistics, Brown requested an explanation, but the Chief never responded.

Chief Landreville has since acknowledged in news reports that, after receiving the ACLU’s letter, he investigated and concluded that, in fact, the Department had not been fully complying with the law.

The statistics that prompted the ACLU’s letter showed that the department, in five of the nine months studied, had submitted fewer than 200 traffic stops forms. Other city police departments — including East Providence, Pawtucket, Warwick and Newport — had regularly submitted over 1,000 traffic stop forms each month. Even Central Falls submitted forms for more than 200 vehicle stops a month.

In that case, the state Attorney General’s office filed a lawsuit similar to the ACLU’s, but in today’s case the Attorney General has indicated he will not sue Woonsocket because the department has purportedly taken various corrective measures in recent weeks to comply with the law.

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