ST. PAUL -- According to a story in today's Minneapolis Star Tribune, they sat down Wednesday, one by one, to tell Minnesota lawmakers how law enforcers stopped them, searched them and often humiliated them for no other obvious reason than the color of their skin.
The newpaper reported that Ramsey County District Judge Salvador Rosas told of the embarrassment of being frisked after supposedly failing to signal a turn.
Jerry Patterson, a Hennepin County assistant public defender, told of police stopping him 14 times in 1997 and 1998 for reasons including that he fit the description of a crime suspect and, once, because he allegedly drove past a crack house.
And John Solomon, a Hennepin County child protection worker and a former Washington, D.C., cop, recalled the time an officer pulled him over because he looked "suspicious."
Their message to the state Senate's crime prevention and judiciary committees: Racial profiling happens. Do something about it now, before the public's trust in the police and the courts erodes to the point that effective law enforcement becomes impossible.
Sens. Jane Ranum and Allan Spear, Minneapolis DFLers, said they called the three-hour hearing because the issue of racial profiling has become the top concern facing law enforcement across the country. Recent studies showing that Minnesota ranks among the worst states in the disparities between blacks and whites in arrest and incarceration rates only highlight the need for study and action, they said.
Lawmakers are gathering information that might be used in legislation addressing " racial profiling, " which is the idea of stopping motorists based solely on their race -- a practice police deny is in place.
Gerard Fergerson, director of the racial disparity initiative for the state Council on Crime and Justice, testified that racial profiling contributes to imbalances in arrest and incarceration rates in Minnesota. In 1997, blacks in custody in Minnesota outnumbered whites 25 to 1. The next year, the number of blacks arrested in violent crimes exceeded the number of whites by the same ratio.
In an attempt to study whether racial profiling is happening, police in St. Paul and Minneapolis became the first in the state to track the race of motorists pulled over in traffic stops, joining a handful of states and hundreds of cities that collect such information. (More information is available at: http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/w041400d.html and http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/w030100b.html .)
Proponents argue that police who must record the race of drivers are deterred from stopping motorists simply because of the color of their skin.
Sen. Jane Ranum, said she would be open to expanding the metro programs statewide. Missouri's Governor, Mel Carnahan, signed legislation last week requiring the data from all law enforcement agencies in his state. (More information is available at: http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/w060600a.html .) Four other states have already enacted data bills.
" It' s very clear that we need to collect this data, and we need to collect it statewide, " Ranum said after the hearing.
" People understand the difficult job that law enforcement has, but this issue of trust is so important to keeping the integrity of our criminal justice system intact."
They heard that faith in law enforcement is rare among blacks in the Twin Cities.
Samuel Payne was pulled over shortly after midnight in January 1999 near the intersection of 42nd St. and Girard Av. N. in Minneapolis. The police ordered him to show his hands. Then they ordered him out of the car, searched him, put him in their squad car and refused to say why they had stopped him.
They ordered his girlfriend out of the car, searched her and put her into the squad car. They finally told him his crime: His license plate didn't match up with his car, according to a records search. They paid attention to his license plate, they said, because he'd failed to dim his high beams.
His vehicle was impounded. At 3 a.m., a police sergeant called to say they'd made a mistake. Police gave him a ride to the impound lot to get his car.
"I was asked if I had gold teeth. I was asked if I had tattoos," said Payne, a social worker. "This was wrong. And something needs to be done about it."
David Harris, a University of Toledo law professor who has studied racial profiling, told the committee that the criminal justice system risks more than the continued alienation of minorities if profiling continues. It risks losing whites as well.
A Gallup poll shows that a majority of white Americans also believe that minority motorists are more likely than whites to be stopped by police. (More information is available at: http://archive.aclu.org/news/1999/n120999a.html .)
Once that perception of unequal justice becomes pervasive, he said, try finding people willing to serve on juries. He also said stops of black motorists are less likely to turn up evidence of crime than stops of whites.
Harris and others urged the legislators to begin collecting statewide race data on stops, as Minneapolis and St. Paul have begun doing. It's a start, he said, to restoring trust in police.
Harris is the principal author of the ACLU's June 1999 report on the subject, "Driving While Black - Racial Profiling On Our Nation's Highways" (available at: http://archive.aclu.org/profiling/report/index.html ).
In its coverage of the hearing appearing in today's editions, the Duluth News Tribune reported that Harris testified that, "The perception that racial bias infects law enforcement has grave negative effects on the legitimacy and integrity of the police and the entire criminal justice system.''
Getting a handle on the problem ultimately will improve the job law enforcement agencies do, Harris said. Racial profiling, for example, can undermine community policing efforts by eroding the trust between police and residents
According to the News Tribune, Sen. Ranum emphasized, ``Having a summer hearing and having legislators sit for three hours is pretty unusual, and I think it shows the seriousness with which my colleagues are taking this issue, and I suspect the whole Legislature and the executive branch as well. I think this will be a nonpartisan issue.''