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Published: Monday, 6/4/2001

Many laud traffic bill to cut racial profiling

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

ADRIAN - Jeanette Henagan believes recording a driver's race on a traffic ticket would be as simple as marking a box.

That, she said, is a small price to pay to see whether police officers are using racial profiling to stop black and Hispanic motorists.

“I believe that it's a good idea for them to at least gather the information so they can get a good study,” said Ms. Henagan, president of the Lenawee County branch of the NAACP. “If it's determined that there is a problem, then the different law enforcement agencies can work on policies to correct it.”

State Rep. Samuel Thomas III (D., Detroit) proposed the bill last week in response to concerns over racial profiling by Michigan police.

Civil rights leaders have complained for years that police nationwide routinely harass minorities.

Some states have addressed the issue.

In New Jersey, former Gov. Christie Whitman admitted in 1999 that state troopers had systematically targeted black and Hispanic drivers.

About a dozen states have passed laws against racial profiling. Many of the laws include anti-bias training and the gathering of statistics on every driver who is stopped.

In recent years, legal advocacy groups have filed lawsuits in several states, including Ohio, to stop police from using racial profiling.

Responding to complaints, Michigan police officers have been collecting racial data on traffic tickets since January, 2000, said Captain Jack Shepherd, a spokesman for the state police.

Michigan law enforcement officials said the proposed legislation would require more paperwork and “data collecting,'' Mr. Shepherd said.

And that could lead to some officers letting offenders go, Lenawee County Sheriff Larry Richardson said.

Sheriff Richardson, who is black, said he would rather investigate complaints of racial profiling and deal with individual officers than put all road patrol officers on the defensive.

He said proper training is important in ending racial profiling.

“If it is a problem, then training more than anything else will help people become sensitized to the needs of other people,” he said.

Sheriff Richardson said most traffic stops and arrests are made in high-crime areas where the officers have stepped up patrols.

Toledo police Chief Mike Navarre said city police began recording race and gender this year. So far, too little data has been collected to draw any conclusions, he said.

Chief Navarre said officers were hesitant about the new policy. But he said the agency needed to do something before state lawmakers took action on the issue - a situation confronting Michigan law enforcement agencies.

“What we can do on our own will be far superior than anything the legislature would enforce,” he said. “I was afraid that what would be mandated would be very cumbersome and serve as a deterrent for officers from doing their job and I didn't want that.”

Tecumseh's interim police chief, James Knierim, said many officers question what the new data would accomplish. Before a community can analyze the data, the racial makeup of residents and motorists just passing through must be determined.

“You can make numbers look like anything you want,” Chief Knierim said. “That's a reality.”

Despite the concerns of law enforcement agents, civil rights activists say the idea is good.

Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Toledo-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee, said the law may make officers think twice before stopping motorists because of the color of their skin.

Mr. Velasquez said a member of the farm labor union's staff was unjustly “picked on” by officers because of his brown skin.

With 40,000 migrant workers in Michigan and 8,000 in northwest Ohio, the group is concerned that profiling will continue.

“This issue could be settled with statistics, but that's difficult to do when you don't have any numbers,” said Mr. Velasquez, whose organization filed a federal lawsuit five years ago against the Ohio Highway Patrol over the issue. “You might learn something. You might learn that officers need some racial or diversity training.”



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