Washington, D.C., attorney Robert Wilkins still remembers vividly a particularly unfortunate evening in 1992. He was driving home from a funeral in Chicago with his family. It had already been an emotionally exhausting weekend, and everyone in the car they’d rented for the trip was anxious to get back to some sense of normalcy. They were almost home when a state trooper on Maryland’s Interstate 68 pulled them over, allegedly for speeding. A few moments later, the officer demanded to search the car.
When Wilkins explained that he was an attorney and objected to the illegal search, the officer called for drug-sniffing dogs. The entire family was forced to stand in the rain by the side of the road while the car was checked. “I don’t really know the words to say exactly how we felt,” Wilkins says. “It was humiliating to stand there as cars drove by. There were children in some of them, with their faces pressed to the window, and I remember thinking what a view of the world this is for them.”
Unfortunately Wilkins’ experience is far too common for African American drivers, says Michigan Rep. John Conyers Jr. “This is an old grievance that we’ve been bothered with since the time I was practicing law before coming to Congress,” he says. This March, the Traffic Stops Statistics Study Act of 1999 sailed through a Judiciary Committee markup hearing on a voice vote. Next step: the full House. The proposal, which Conyers originally presented last spring, would direct the U.S. attorney general to conduct a nationwide study of routine traffic stops by law enforcement officers.
In addition to gathering new information, the study would include an analysis of existing data, such as complaints and other information concerning traffic stops motivated by race and other bias, and would also provide grants to law enforcement agencies to collect and submit the data.
“It won’t change the way arrests are made, but it’s a way to statistically record anything that’s going on that would document there is negative racial profiling,” says Conyers. “We [can] begin to stop racial profiling by documenting where it’s happening.”
If passed, the law would require police officers to report the driver’s race; the offense for which he or she was stopped; how long the car was detained; and whether a ticket was issued, the car was searched, or any illegal goods or weapons were found when the traffic stop was made.
“Although the federal government failed in the past to take the appropriate steps by passing this legislation in both the House and Senate, we know public pressure is forcing law enforcement agencies to act on their own,” says Kenneth Meeks, black enterprise managing editor, who recently wrote Driving While Black: Highways, Shopping Malls, Taxicabs, Sidewalks: What to Do If You Are a Victim of Racial Profiling (Broadway Books, $12.95).
“Since this past summer alone, the number of local and state police departments volunteering to collect data on traffic stops has grown from about 50 departments nationwide to well over