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Lawmakers Say They've Been Driven to Fight Racial Profiling

Many black and Latino representatives count themselves among motorists stopped for no other reason than appearance.

May 13, 1999|SAM FULWOOD III | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Elijah E. Cummings is a former prosecutor, Maryland state legislator and currently a third-term Democratic congressman representing a Baltimore city district.

But three days after buying a black Acura in 1991, Cummings was pulled over by a state trooper as he cruised to work on Capitol Hill. During the next year, he was pulled over an average of once a month as he commuted the 100 miles round-trip between his home and office. Even now, Cummings said, he's stopped about four or five times a year.

He never receives a ticket. No reason is offered and rarely is an apology made for the inconvenience. Typically, the officer is white, but sometimes, like him, an African American. Almost always, the officer's mantra is the same: "Just checking" to make sure the car wasn't stolen.

Cummings joins a convoy of black and Latino lawmakers who say they have been victims of racial profiling, an oft-criticized police strategy of using race or ethnicity to target drivers for random stops. While he and many of his black and Latino colleagues wield influence inside Washington, they are not spared the humiliation of having police pull them over at random. They fit the profile that police look for in trying to stop the illicit drug trade: young, dark and in a jazzy car.

A Times survey of black and Latino congressional leaders found that most of them either have been singled out themselves or know someone who has been stopped by police for DWB, or "Driving While Black/Brown." Among the 39 black lawmakers serving in the 106th Congress, 18 said they or someone in their immediate family had been stopped for no reason other than the color of their skin.

"This is something that's been plaguing me ever since I started driving," Cummings said. "Black men understand this. It's a part of our lives. If you're a black man, even if you're a member of Congress, a cop is going to pull you over."

Numbers among Latino lawmakers are not as high, in part because many are light-skinned. Still, three of the 19 Latino House members reported that either they or members of their family had been unfairly hassled in traffic stops.

As a result, these lawmakers say, their effort to end racial profiling is more than business as usual--it's personal.

In fact, the lawmakers' response to racial profiling on the nation's highways coincides with a spike in public attention on police treatment of minorities. In New York, activists have turned out by the hundreds to protest the killing of Amadou Diallo, whom police shot 41 times after mistaking him for a rape suspect. The Diallo case has generated national attention on police procedures, especially when they make life-or-death decisions about suspects.

In Washington, President Clinton and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno have spoken out against racial profiling. In New Jersey, the profiling issue is so politically sensitive that Gov. Christine Todd Whitman fired State Police Supt. Col. Carl Williams after he admitted that state police associate certain crimes with some races.

"The president of the United States went to Mexico to talk to the president of Mexico about drugs," Williams said in an interview with the Star-Ledger newspaper in Newark, N.J. "He didn't go to Ireland. He didn't go to England."

Williams' remarks came during a two-month investigation of police profiling practices, which revealed that more than three-quarters of the cars searched in New Jersey during the period were driven by blacks or Latinos.

Officials in New Jersey since have acknowledged that some state troopers used racial profiling in making traffic stops. In other states, such as California and North Carolina, legislatures have bills pending to impose stricter guidelines on traffic stops. And a few areas, such as San Diego and Maryland's Montgomery County, have ordered police to maintain public records of traffic stops to determine whether officers are targeting minority drivers.

Last month, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) introduced the Traffic Stops Statistics Act of 1999, calling for a nationwide study requiring law enforcement officials to document the race, gender, ethnicity and age of drivers stopped. Conyers, who has never been stopped for DWB, ushered similar legislation through the House last year, but it failed in the Senate.

Given the increased attention to the issue, Conyers is more hopeful that his bill will pass this time around. "This legislation will allow us to ascertain the extent such profiling is occurring on a nationwide basis, help increase police awareness of the problem and determine if any broader response is warranted," he said.

Many opponents say the bill is unnecessary paperwork, agreeing with police officials who say officers aren't trained to use race as a cause for traffic stops.

In their defense, police officials across the country say that they don't automatically assume racial minorities are criminals but often use some forms of profiling to help spotlight potential lawbreakers.

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