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Oregon Joins Other States in Looking at "Driving While Black"
Whether there is racially influenced enforcement of traffic laws is a hotly debated topic, especially following lawsuits in New Jersey and Maryland. Although police deny that they engage in racial profiling, the perception among minorities is that police are decidedly racist. In a recent survey in Multinomah County, African Americans gave police a rating of 7.2 (10 being routinely unfair), compared to 4.7 among whites (Oregonian, March 2).
Some crucial information is lacking. Currently, statistics on traffic stops are only kept if a citation is issued, which happens over a million times a year. Legislation in the U.S. Congress seeks to record the race, age and gender of all individuals pulled over by police, regardless of whether a citation is given. The data could then be used to identify departments engaging in racial profiling, intentionally or not. This bill is opposed by police lobbying groups, such as the National Association of Police Officers (NAPO). NAPO's President Robert Scully sees probable cause as an existing "essential safegaurd against racial profiling" (Rap Sheet, June 1999). After all if "it turns out that the individual has done nothing wrong, then that person is free to go." This argument sidesteps the issue of the vagueness of "probable cause," and ignores the fact that repeated traffic stops, even if one is free to go, constitute harassment.
A 1997 Oregon law (HB 2433) increased police authority to stop and search mo torists and mandated that police departments adopt policies against targeting civilians based on race. This law is being monitored to determine if Oregonians are subjected to race-based profiling. A group of 60 law enforcement officials and civil liberties advocates have admitted that relations between minority populations and police are strained, and have recommended that the legislature approve over $175,000 to study the problem and monitor complaints. Chief Moose, who is on the committee, emphasized that police deserve credit for admitting the problem, and being willing to discuss it ("Police Must Document Traffic Stops," editorial, The Portland Skanner, March 17).
In light of Oregon's racist history and local and national efforts, it is refreshing to know that the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon will be participating in the national program set up by the ACLU to document traffic stops of people of color--"driving while black." Now, if only we can get them to study police harassment for "walking while black," "hanging out with friends while black" or "living while black."
Portland Copwatch is a grassroots, volunteer organization promoting police accountability through citizen action.