New ACLU Report on Racial Profiling Calls for Government Action and An End to Official Denials

June 2, 1999 12:00 am

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Wednesday, June 2, 1999

NEW YORK–Racial profiling of minority motorists is restoring Jim Crow justice in America, the American Civil Liberties Union said today in issuing a new report documenting the practice.

In the first comprehensive look at the problem, Driving While Black: Racial Profiling On Our Nation’s Highways cites police statistics on traffic stops, ACLU lawsuits, government reports and media stories from around the nation in making the case that skin color is being used as a substitute for evidence and a ground for suspicion.

A key finding, the ACLU report said, is that the heightened “war on drugs” of the past two decades — in which blacks and Hispanics have been disproportionately arrested and jailed — has unfairly legitimized the notion that people of color are more likely to violate drug laws, a notion that the government’s own statistics disprove.

“We are here today to demand an end to racial profiling,” said ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser, who spoke at a news conference at the ACLU’s national headquarters in downtown Manhattan.

“The ACLU is using all of its available legal resources as well as advertising, public service announcements, statistical reports and yes, the media, to get our message out,” Glasser said.

The 43-page report makes five recommendations to end DWB including a call for the U.S. Department of Justice to end the use of racial profiling in federally funded drug interdiction programs. Specifically, the ACLU is calling for:

— An end to the use of pretext stops as a crime-fighting tactic;
— Congressional passage of the federal Traffic Stops Statistic Study Act;
— Passage of remedial legislation in every state;
— A ban on racial profiling in all federally funded drug interdiction programs;
— Collection of city-by-city traffic stop data on a voluntary basis.

The ACLU also said the Justice Department should create an early-warning system for problem officers; require the use of written consent forms before conducting a search; and ban the practice of extending a traffic stop so that drug-sniffing dogs can be brought in.

As part of its multi-pronged effort to raise public awareness about racial profiling, the ACLU has established a nationwide toll-free hotline (1-877-6-PROFILE) for victims to call, as well as a special online feature that includes a complaint form at /profiling/.

Similar efforts are underway in California, where the ACLU’s statewide hotline (1-877-DWB-STOP), advertised in public service announcements on radio stations and on highway billboards, has logged more than 1,600 calls since October 1998.

Radio stations around the country recently began airing the national ACLU’s public service announcement, urging DWB victims to call and report incidents on the nationwide ACLU hotline. At today’s news conference, Kernie L. Anderson, General Manager for New York City’s WBLS, owned by the Inner City Broadcasting Corporation, said that they had decided to air the announcements because WBLS wanted their listeners to know that they have a way to fight back.

The ACLU has also placed full-page ads in Emerge, a popular magazine for black audiences whose June 1999 cover story focuses on DWB. A lawsuit filed in Oklahoma last month on behalf of a black Army officer came as a result of his response to an ACLU ad in the magazine.

“It is disgraceful that a soldier who has traveled around the world representing United States interests — a man who even risked his life for his country — should be treated as a second-class citizen in his own land,” said Reginald T. Shuford, an ACLU national staff attorney who is litigating the Oklahoma case.

“I speak not only as an attorney, but as someone with first-hand experience of racial profiling and who is personally dedicated to putting an end to this aspect of the American experience for people of color.”

One of the reasons for launching its comprehensive campaign against DWB, the ACLU said, is that despite mounting evidence, official denial of the problem has persisted. “Even when faced with a lawsuit, statistical evidence from independent experts, public pressure and intensive news coverage, officials in law enforcement and government are not eager to acknowledge the problem of racial profiling,” the report said.

Professor David Harris, a law professor at the University of Toledo in Ohio and a principal author of the report, said he was troubled — although not entirely surprised — by the denials.

“Based on studies I’ve conducted, as well as the information compiled in the ACLU report, there is no question in my mind that racial profiling is part of an established and persistent pattern of law enforcement conduct,” he said.

“By laying out the facts in such detail in this report, we hope that we can now get beyond ‘Is there really a problem’ to ‘What are we as a nation going to do about it?'” Harris said. “We don’t suggest that this will be easy, only that it is necessary if we are to call ourselves a democratic nation.”

According to the report, the practice of systematic racial profiling became further institutionalized through a 1986 Drug Enforcement Agency program called “Operation Pipeline.” To date, this little-known highway drug interdiction program has trained approximately 27,000 police officers in 48 participating states to use pretext stops in order to find drugs in vehicles.

The use of pretext stops was bolstered in the next decade, the report said, by a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions allowing the police to use traffic stops as a pretext to “fish” for evidence of wrongdoing.

“Both anecdotal and quantitative data show that nationwide, the police exercise this discretionary power primarily against African Americans and Latinos,” the report said, resulting in a “vicious cycle” that starts from the presumption that people of color are more likely to be guilty of drug offenses. But according to the government’s own reports, “80 percent of the country’s cocaine users are white,” and “the typical cocaine user is a middle-class, white suburbanite.”

The ACLU emphasized today that racial profiling affects all people of color and pre-dates the “war on drugs.” In California and nationally, the ACLU’s public service announcement radio ads are broadcast in English and Spanish. The ACLU of Southern California has developed materials for the Asian American community in six different languages. ACLU wallet cards on “what do in a police encounter” have been distributed around the country in at least seven languages.

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