Massachusetts Passes Racial Profiling Bill

July 14, 2000 12:00 am

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BOSTON — According to a story in today’s Boston Globe, the Massachusetts Senate passed a bill yesterday to require police to record the race and gender of every driver issued a traffic citation.

The 37-2 approval of the bill aimed at fighting racial profiling followed painful testimony about black drivers being pulled over without reason, and searched or harassed by police officers.

Police issue about 2 million traffic citations per year in the state. In addition to race and gender, officers would be required to record whether they conduct a search of a driver’s car.

Local law enforcement agencies would submit the information to a state data bank, where it would be analyzed for patterns of racial and gender bias. Supporters say black males are more likely than any other group to suffer harassment from police.

”It is high time for the Senate to bring the issue of racial profiling into the light,” said Senate Majority Leader Linda Melconian, a Springfield Democrat. ”One hundred percent of my black male interns have told me they believe they were victims of racial profiling.”

The bill would also require police to hand drivers a card after issuing a citation with a toll-free number for complaints of harassment or discrimination. It would mandate anti-bias training for all police officers.

Senator Dianne Wilkerson, a Roxbury Democrat, said her two sons were stopped and harassed by police without cause after they dropped her off at a campaign fundraiser three years ago.

”Incidents like these, when unchecked, compromise the confidence we must all have in our law enforcement process,” Wilkerson said. ”This is not a witch hunt, it’s a hunt for justice. This bill is crucial in helping boost the confidence in law enforcement among all citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

To become law this year, the measure needs approval from the House and Governor Paul Cellucci by July 31, when the legislative session ends. House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran and Cellucci signaled support for it yesterday, though they said they had not examined the proposal closely.

The program would be in place by next January if passed.

The measure won support from police departments after a provision was removed that would have required officers to note the race and gender of every driver stopped, even when a citation is not issued. Similar measures already enacted in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Missouri require every agency in those states to collect data on every stop whether or not a ticket is issued. Laws in Washington, Tennessee, Kansas and North Carolina also require this data although but do not apply to every agency. (More information about state legislative efforts to address racial profiling is available at: http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/w072400c.html , http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/w072600a.html and http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/w060600a.html.)

Police have recently begun taking steps to confront the issue. Last month, the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association voted to crack down on racial profiling. The vote followed a well-publicized Eastham incident in which an African-American Cape Cod Times reporter conducting an interview alongside Route 6 was frisked and questioned by two police officers. The reporter was pointing a tape recorder at a white man carrying a cross, and a passerby called police and told them a black man was pointing a gun at the man with the cross.

Massachusetts Police Association Legislative Director James Machado said although police acknowledge a problem exists, they believe most officers conduct their jobs without bias.

”To say that it doesn’t exist is naive. But we’re hopeful that this will prove us correct that there is little or no problem in law enforcement,” Machado said.

According to the Boston Herald, Senator James P. Jajuga, a Methune Democrat and a retired state trooper, commented, “If there are some (departments) that are drifting (into racial profiling), this will tell us.” (More information about racial profiling concerns in Massachusetts is available at: http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/w061400b.html and http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/w040200a.html .)

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