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'Driving while black' -- racial profiling under study

June 2, 1999
Web posted at: 4:22 p.m. EDT (2022 GMT)

SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) -- With the growing number of allegations that police are using racial profiles to decide which motorists to pull over, some states are moving to gather statistics to show just who is stopped for alleged traffic violations.

Some minority leaders say they expect the statistics to show African Americans routinely are stopped for what they call "driving while black."

After being stopped recently in Clayton, California, black motorist Sam Williams asked the officer why he had pulled him over.

"I said, 'Do you know why I'm being pulled over?' He said because someone in the back seat fidgeted," Williams said.

Police later said Williams was stopped because of "suspicious activity."

Clayton Police Chief Pete Peterson maintains that his department keeps a close watch for racial harassment.

"We don't tolerate racial harassment or discrimination of any type. If somebody has a complaint like that, we will investigate it vigorously. If there is a problem, if discipline is necessary, we'll certainly take that kind of action," Peterson said.

He said in this case, an investigation showed that the officers' actions were correct and legal.

Some African American leaders think gathering statistics on police stops will help show that the problem of racial profiling is widespread.

"The primary reason that police departments have been able to get away with racial profiling is because they refuse to collect the evidence that would prove that a problem exists," said Michelle Alexander with the American Civil Liberties Union's Racial Justice Project.

Figures gathered in Ohio seem to support Alexander's point. A study shows that blacks received traffic citations at a rate 1.5 times their portion of the population.

North Carolina already mandates that its police departments keep racial data on traffic stops. And the legislatures in several other states either already require it, or are considering laws mandating that their departments keep traffic stop statistics.

A bill was introduced in the U.S. House in April that would order the U.S. attorney general to conduct a nationwide study of traffic stops. The study would include information on the race and ethnicity of the drivers.

But not everyone thinks a federal law is a good idea.

"I just don't think we need another federal law that really doesn't do anything other than gather statistics," said Chip Warren, with the International Brotherhood of Police Officers.

Recently the U.S. Supreme Court gave police wide discretion on who they stop, scolding critics for second-guessing police instincts.

"We teach that in our police academies, that if you see something or you see a building that just doesn't look quite right, stop what you are doing and check it out." Warren said.

Racial profiling has been spotlighted recently in a New Jersey case. Prosecutors filed a motion to dismiss charges against 21 people arrested by two state troopers accused of singling out minority drivers for traffic stops. The officers were indicted on charges that they falsified their records to hide their alleged practice of targeting minorities.

A House panel in May heard allegations of racial profiling by the U.S. Customs Service. Minorities testified they were unfairly targeted in the fight against drug trafficking. The Customs Service has appointed an independent commission to investigate

Correspondent Greg Lefevre contributed to this report

New York officials defend police at civil rights hearing
May 26, 1999
House panel looks into charges of 'racial profiling' by U.S. Customs
May 21, 1999
Reno meets with civil rights activists to discuss police brutality
March 22, 1999

Citizens Opposing Profiled Police Stops
House: Traffic Stops Statistics Study Act of 1999
Senate: Traffic Stops Statistics Study Act of 1999
ACLU: American Civil Liberties Union
  • Racial Profiling in America
International Brotherhood of Police Officers
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