Rhode Island Governor Says He Will Sign Strong Racial Profiling Bill

June 21, 2000 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI: According to a story in today’s Providence Journal, in a major victory for civil-rights groups, bills aimed at “racial profiling” by police on the highway easily passed both houses of the Rhode Island Legislature yesterday.

The bills would direct local police departments to ban the practice, and require a statistical study of traffic stops by all state and local police agencies to determine whether they pull drivers over merely because of their race, as minority group members have complained for years.

The Associated Press reported that Republican Gov. Lincoln Almond’s spokeswoman, Lisa Pelosi, said the governor plans to sign the bill into law.

Rhode Island will be the seventh state to pass data collection bills to address racial profiling following bills enacted earlier this month in Missouri (see http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/w060600a.html) and Tennessee http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/w060700a.html.)

According to the Providence Journal, the focus of the Rhode Island bills is to force a two-year study, beginning Jan. 15, of “racial profiling” by every law enforcement agency in the state.

Police would fill out brief forms describing the driver, including race, estimated age and sex, the reason and circumstances of the stop, whether the car was searched and whether the driver was charged with anything.

“This represents incredible progress,” said Anthony Maione, executive director of the Civil Rights Roundtable, a group that supported the bill. “It means we’re going to have some real data to look at” on a sharply disputed subject.

Minority group members are so sure racial profiling happens that they have coined a bitter joke about it, saying they were stopped for “driving while black,” an imaginary violation they say the police have added to the law books.

In the Senate, sponsor Rhoda Perry, D-Providence, read aloud an excerpt from a 1999 report by the American Civil Liberties Union that said racial profiling is based on the premise that most drug offenses are committed by minorities. The premise is false, the study said, but it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Because police look for drugs primarily among African-Americans and Latinos, they find a disproportionate number of them with contraband,” she said, reading from the report. (The report is available at: http://archive.aclu.org/profiling/report/index.html.)

Supporters said that Rhode Island’s minority communities have lost confidence in the police and that the study is necessary if they are to believe that police are treating them fairly.

Rep. Joseph S. Almeida, the House sponsor, told a story about two men, one black and one white, driving on Route 95 who were followed by the police. The driver, who was white, dropped off his black passenger. Later, the white driver called his black friend to say the police pulled him over. “I was stopped because of you,” he told his black friend.

“The person in the car was me,” said Almeida, a retired Providence police officer who said he was the black passenger.

The bills passed the House 81 to 6 and the Senate 41 to 5.

Supporters easily fended off an attempt in the House to eliminate the bill’s enforcement mechanism, a provision that would let civil-rights groups sue police departments that refused to collect the data to force them to comply.

Almeida said the form will be based on one Connecticut is already using pursuant to a data collection law signed into law last year by Republican Governor John Rowland.

According to the newspaper, this year marks the first time such a bill in Rhode Island has advanced out of a House committee or reached the floor of either house. Last year, a similar bill was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, but was killed before it reached the Senate floor after opposition from Col. Edmund S. Culhane Jr., the State Police superintendent.

(More information about the controversy over racial profiling in Rhode Island is available at: http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/w060900a.html, http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/w051900a.html, http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/w012600a.html, http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/w020200a.html, and http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/w020700a.html.)

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