Two cities tackle racial profiling

In San Diego and San Jose, Calif., police agree to track people they

While police shootings of blacks have brought protests in New York and Riverside, Calif., civil rights groups are applauding a potential sea change in police attitudes toward race relations emerging more quietly in two other large Golden State cities: San Jose and San Diego.

In both communities, police chiefs have voluntarily agreed to begin collecting data to deal with charges that minorities are more subject to being questioned by police than whites.

They are among the first such moves in the nation to proactively deal with so-called "racial profiling," an allegation that law-enforcement agencies target individuals by race. The issue has roiled race relations across the country in recent years, despite the fact that many law-enforcement officials deny that they do it.

Indeed, in New York, protests are intensifying over the fatal police shooting of an African immigrant, while in Riverside, an investigation into the death of an African-American woman was finished Friday. But the recently announced moves in San Diego and San Jose present a contrasting picture.

Last week, San Jose police chief William Lansdowne was joined by representatives of the NAACP and the ACLU, who praised his announcement that officers would soon begin tracking ethnicity, sex, age, and reason for traffic stops.

And a few weeks earlier, San Diego Police Department chief Jerry Sanders launched a similar data-collection effort.

"This is a hugely significant change, and I hope they're not going to stand alone," says John Crew, director of the ACLU's police practices project.

The law-enforcement establishment has generally opposed collecting this information. It has argued in part that paying special attention to these data will increase rather than decrease race consciousness among officers. Yet advocates hope the San Jose and San Diego actions will prod other departments to take the initiative.

What civil rights advocates applaud in these efforts is that they have come voluntarily. Legal challenges have already forced police departments to assess the racial component of motorist stops in several states, including Maryland, New Jersey, and Florida, according to the ACLU.

"This is a very different response" to the long-standing perception among minorities that they are treated unfairly, says Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Washington. "It's the beginning of an answer and a recognition that this is a complaint worth taking seriously."

Indeed, Mr. Crew says police departments are typically put on the defensive by charges of racism and often respond in ways that encourage further suspicion. Being proactive can help change perceptions, he adds.

THE new policy in San Jose, California's third-largest city, follows an incident earlier this month when an African-American youth pastor was stopped by police and, according to him, mistreated before being released without any citation. Following the incident, NAACP chapter president Aminah Jahi accused the San Jose police of profiling black- and brown-skinned drivers.

While the San Jose Police Department has in the past denied the practice, its police chief took a new tack.

"We've always denied we do profiling, but it doesn't answer the question," says Chief Lansdowne. "My position is that it's time to take a real look at it."

Lansdowne says complaints from the community that certain race groups are targeted are "constant and continuous," and that even some of his own minority officers claim such treatment when they are off duty.

A dozen states, including California, are considering legislation this year to require the collection of racial data in traffic stops.

Advocates are also pushing federal legislation calling on the US Justice Department to track that data. Separately, the Justice Department is planning a national pilot project to collect information about traffic stops.

Proponents in California figure that a law is more likely to pass this year with a new Democratic governor and a state attorney general who supported a similar bill last year when he was in the state Senate. Last year's bill cleared the Legislature but was vetoed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.

The California Police Officers Association (CPOA) opposes the bill, as it did similar legislation last year, as a costly and ineffective remedy - if indeed there is a problem. "You cannot prevent profiling. How do you tell officers who to stop? You're supposed to look for things that are out of place," says Paul Curry, who chairs the CPOA's legislation committee. His point is that officers use subjective criteria to determine when behavior is suspicious enough to act to combat crime.

But civil-rights activists say that when profiling is based on racial stereotypes, it is out of place and dangerous. "It's important for effective policing that all the public accepts that they are treated equally," says Mr. Sterling. "The police are the front line of our entire system of justice."

A dozen states, including California, are considering legislation this year to require the collection of racial data in traffic stops.

Advocates are also pushing federal legislation calling on the US Justice Department to track that data. Separately, the Justice Department is planning a national pilot project to collect information about traffic stops.

Proponents in California figure that a law is more likely to pass this year with a new Democratic governor and a state attorney general who supported a similar bill last year when he was in the state Senate. Last year's bill cleared the Legislature but was vetoed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.

The California Police Officers Association (CPOA) opposes the bill, as it did similar legislation last year, as a costly and ineffective remedy - if indeed there is a problem. "You cannot prevent profiling. How do you tell officers who to stop? You're supposed to look for things that are out of place," says Paul Curry, who chairs the CPOA's legislation committee. His point is that officers use subjective criteria to determine when behavior is suspicious enough to act to combat crime.

But civil-rights activists say that when profiling is based on racial stereotypes, it is out of place and dangerous. "It's important for effective policing that all the public accepts that they are treated equally," says Mr. Sterling. "The police are the front line of our entire system of justice."

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