U.S. Senators of Both Parties Condemn Racial Profiling

March 31, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The Bergen (N.J.) Record reported today that three men gave moving testimony to a Senate subcommittee Thursday on how they felt police turned their constitutional rights upside down in traffic stops motivated by one reason: race.

“My son is only 17 months old, and I hope that I never have to have this conversation with him. Unfortunately, I probably will,” said Robert Wilkins, an African-American public defender in Washington. He was pulled over by Maryland State Police five years ago and had a 40-minute confrontation with police who searched his car but made no citations.

The Record reported that Wilkins joined an African-American Army sergeant from Maryland and a Hispanic lawyer from California in urging the Senate’s subcommittee on constitutional rights to approve a national study of how often minorities are stopped by police. It would require a sampling of jurisdictions to record the race, sex, ethnicity, age, and other characteristics in all traffic stops.

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., proposed the bill last year amid an outcry over allegations of racial profiling on the New Jersey Turnpike and by the New York City Police Department’s street crimes unit.

Lautenberg called his legislation a small “first step” that merely would require the attorney general to compile national data. But, he added: “When the first step is such a change from existing procedure, it’s a giant step.”

The House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved an identical bill on March 1. (See also http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/n030100a.html .) Thursday’s was the first Senate hearing on racial profiling, according to civil rights advocates.

Conservative Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., agreed that the missing ingredient was statistics and voiced support for better record keeping. “We do need to find out how big this issue is,” said Ashcroft in a statement released Thursday. He called the bill, known as the Traffic Stops Statistics Study Act, “a good start.”

The hearing was before the Subcommittee on the Constitution, chaired by Ashcroft.

Ashcroft’s statement said he was troubled by, “the extraordinarily destructive effected that (allegations of racial profiing) have on the people’s confidence in government.”

According to the Senator, “a necessary component of our system of government is public trust. No system of government, of the people, by the people, and for the people, can long endure if some of those people have no confidence in that government. So long as whole groups of our citizens believe that there is a two-tiered system of treatment by government officials arbitrarily divided by race, they will have not confidence in that system. They will understandably conclude that if government is improperly motivated by race in some circumstances, it might be improperly motivated by race in all circumstances. This is particularly true if that perception is held of law enforcement, the very government agents entrusted with protecting citizens from injustice. Such an erosion of trust would not only undermine the ability of law enforcement officers to do their jobs, it would undermine any efforts that we in government make to try to improve the lives of all Americans.”

Wilkins, the public defender, was so outraged by his stop that he sued the Maryland State Police and won a $50,000 settlement that included forced data-keeping of all traffic stops.

But Wilkins said the problem is not limited to Maryland or New Jersey. “This is a national problem, a national study is needed,” he said.

In its story on the hearing today, the Chicago Sun-Times quoted Wilkins saying, “It is hard to describe the frustration and pain you feel when people presume you to be guilty for no good reason, and you know that you are innocent. We were criminal suspects, yet we were just trying to use the interstate highways to travel from our homes to a funeral.”

“Racial profiling chips away at the important trust that law enforcement agencies take great pains to develop with the community,” said Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis) according to the Sun-Times. “Racial profiling is clearly bad policing, and it has a ripple effect whose consequences we are only beginning to feel.”

The Chicago Tribune focused on testimony to the Subcommittee from Highland Park police officers who say they were encouraged to target minorities for traffic stops.

Officer Rodney Watt, one of five plaintiffs in a 1998 lawsuit against the department, testified that he was taught to park perpendicular to U.S. Highway 41 and shine his lights on passing cars to determine the driver’s race.

“My field training officer taught me that the Illinois Vehicle Code is an officer’s best friend,” Watt said before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Constitution, Federalism and Property Rights. “A broken taillight, an unlighted license plate or alleged `weaving’–even in one’s own lane–is sufficient for a stop.”

The goal of these stops, he said, was “to keep African-Americans away from the central business district, parks and beaches so that the community would not become `nervous.’ “

According to the Tribune, Watt is joined by 16 current and former officers who have alleged widespread abuses in affidavits submitted to the subcommittee.

In their written statements, the officers say they were taught to spot Mexican drivers to pull over by looking for large hats. A radio dispatch transcript submitted as evidence includes a Highland Park officer saying, “We got a winner,” after a sombrero sighting.

Officer Pierino DeRose wrote that another officer “explained to me that if the Mexican is wearing a hat, there is a 50 percent chance he is drunk, and a 100 percent chance if he is wearing a cowboy hat.”

Another officer “told me on many occasions that he would make traffic stops and figure out the probable cause later,” he wrote.

More information on the Highland Park officers’ allegations of racial profiling is available at: http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/w032500b.html .)


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