Lawmakers seek ban on disputed police practice

The Associated Press
Wednesday May 23, 2001

WASHINGTON — Emboldened by comments from the Bush administration, lawmakers who tried last year to launch a nationwide study of racial profiling are now moving for the first time to outlaw the disputed law enforcement practice. 

With state legislatures around the country grappling with the issue, some say Congress should stand back rather than jump in. 

Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s delegate to the House, has proposed withholding some highway funds from states that do not ban racial profiling, the practice of targeting suspects based on race or ethnicity. 

A group of Democrats led by Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan is preparing legislation that would make criminal justice grants to police departments contingent upon how they monitor and stop racial profiling. 

Federal efforts to combat racial profiling got a boost in February when President Bush declared, “It is wrong, and we must end it.” 

Attorney General John Ashcroft then endorsed legislation, proposed in the last Congress by Feingold and Conyers, requiring state and local law enforcement agencies to collect data on traffic stops. 

David Harris, a law professor who has been working with Feingold and Conyers, said the lawmakers no longer want to settle for studying whether racial profiling happens. 

“There is wide acknowledgment that this is a reality faced every day by people of color,” said Harris, who teaches at the University of Toledo in Ohio. “The question now is, how can we approach it in a concrete way that will make a difference?” 

Convening a hearing on the topic Tuesday, Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, said she hopes “to create the necessary will for this Congress and this administration to immediately end the practice of racial profiling.” 

At least 15 states have taken action to stop or study racial profiling, and 20 others have legislation pending. 

California, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Oregon have banned the practice. Arizona’s attorney general signed a declaration renouncing it. Connecticut, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Maryland have ordered police to adopt policies against racial profiling. 

North Carolina, Missouri and Washington have instructed police to collect statistics on whom they stop, and why. Kansas and Rhode Island have launched studies. 

Susan Parnas Frederick, director of the law and justice committee of the National Conference of State Legislatures, said Congress should continue to let states address the issue. 

“To have this strong arm of the federal government come and squash all those efforts just doesn’t seem fair,” Frederick said. 

Gene Voegtlin, legislative counsel at The International Association of Chiefs of Police, said his organization supports cracking down on racial profiling but disagrees with threatening to withhold federal funds. 

“As long as (legislation) has sanctions and mandates, I don’t think this association can support it,” said Voegtlin. 

Feingold and Conyers have been fine-tuning their bill along with Democratic Sens. Jon Corzine of New Jersey and Hillary Clinton of New York. 

Police departments that do not sufficiently address racial profiling would lose part of their annual federal funding, which for larger departments can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

Departments that lead the way in developing procedures and technologies for monitoring racial profiling would be eligible for “best practices” grants. 

Norton’s bill would give states until Oct. 1, 2003, to adopt and enforce “standards that prohibit the use of racial profiling” and keep public records on motorists stopped by police. 

Failing states would lose 5 percent of their federal highway funds, which in many cases total hundreds of millions of dollars. 


On the Net: 

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton: http://www.house.gov/norton/ 

International Association of Chiefs of Police: http://www.theiacp.org/