U.S. Department of Justice Charges Police with Racial Profiling in Columbus, Ohio

Affiliate: ACLU of Ohio
June 29, 2000 12:00 am

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Associated Press reported today that the U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday added a racial profiling complaint to its lawsuit accusing police officers in Columbus, Ohio of civil rights violations.

According to AP, the complaint says that from 1994 to 1999, blacks in Columbus were almost three times as likely as whites to be the subject of traffic stops in which one or more tickets were issued.

Of the 300,000 motor vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian stops involving Columbus residents age 18 or older, 39 percent involved blacks, who make up 22 percent of the city’s population.

The lawsuit, filed Oct. 21 against the city and the police department, accuses officers of abusing civil rights by filing false charges, using excessive force and conducting illegal searches.

“We are hopeful today’s filing will ultimately result in fundamental changes in Columbus police practices which have fostered this pattern of racially discriminatory conduct,” said Bill Lann Lee, acting assistant attorney general. “Our goal is to ensure that all citizens are treated equally under the law.”

Earlier this week the city announced a new plan aimed at preventing discriminatory behavior by officers. Under the new plan, police will examine existing nondiscrimination policies and training.

They also will start collecting and analyzing data every time a vehicle is stopped to ensure police aren’t pulling over drivers based on their race. Currently, that data is collected only when a ticket is issued.

“I have confidence in our officers,” Mayor Michael Coleman said Wednesday. “And we are moving forward with our plan, regardless of the amendment to the complaint by the Department of Justice.”

In an editorial appearing in Wednesday’s editions, the Columbus Dispatch applauded the plan noting, “even if the U.S. Department of Justice had never come to town with a lawsuit claiming Columbus police violate people’s civil rights, Mayor Michael B. Coleman’s proposal that police record the race of every motorist they stop would be a good one.” Emphasizing that “law enforcement agencies across the country have adopted such policies in recent months,” the Dispatch said that ” an ounce of prevention, especially in an era of justified sensitivity to racial matters involving law enforcement, could go a long way toward resolving allegations of improper racial profiling by Columbus police. Such allegations inflame and divide communities, damaging reputations and morale among officers and provoking fear, anxiety and hostility among the public.”

According to the Dispatch editorial, “the Fraternal Order of Police, the officers’ bargaining unit, contends any change in traffic-stop policy would represent a change in condition of employment, and thus must be subject to bargaining.

“The Dispatch does not agree. Equal protection under the law never can be negotiable. The city has every right to adopt policies to ensure that. The FOP would put itself in an untenable position to argue otherwise. The FOP should send a message of cooperation. The stalled contract negotiations are seen as a major stumbling block to eventually reaching compromises, albeit difficult ones, on the Justice Department suit. This could avert a lengthy and costly civil trial in U.S. District Court.”

The editorial quoted the current President of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Michigan State Police Col. Michael Robinson, explaining why his department is examining traffic stops — `We have to deal with perception as much as reality. If data helps us assure some that we are not engaged in inappropriate behavior — and it gives us information to discuss openly what is occurring out there in the community — then it’s appropriate.’

“Well put,” the Dispatch editorial concluded. “The Fraternal Order of Police should take note. Its members could be the ones who benefit most by such a policy.”

(More information on the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Michigan State Police data program is available at: http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/w060300b.html

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