When New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) announced in April that her state's police force was more likely to stop and search minority motorists than whites on the New Jersey Turnpike, the reverberations were felt all the way from the White House to First Baptist Church of Guilford in Columbia.
It was sudden, dramatic validation of a suspicion that many blacks had long held but rarely had been able to get authorities to admit, recalled the Rev. John Wright, the church's pastor. In its wake, dozens of police departments across the country launched their own investigations. President Clinton ordered all federal law enforcement departments to begin policing themselves for racial profiling.
Months later, the phone on Wright's desk rang. It was Howard County Police Chief G. Wayne Livesay.
"He said he needed my help. He wanted to reach out to the community before racial profiling became an issue here," Wright said.
Thus began the county's ambitious ongoing effort to convey to its residents that racial profiling by police won't be tolerated. It officially kicked off last week with a news conference, albeit amid some confusion. There has never been a documented case of racial profiling in Howard County. Community complaints have been few. So why the big public effort?
"Because racial profiling is on the minds of so many citizens," Livesay said.
On Tuesday, Wright's church held a town hall meeting, with Livesay and his top lieutenants present, to hear from residents about DWB--"driving while black," a phrase used by many blacks to convey their sense that race-based stops have become official policy.
In addition to the dialogue, Livesay said, a system to monitor police stops by race, to see whether discriminatory patterns emerge, will be in place later this year. Over the past few weeks, Livesay has met one-on-one with all county police officers to warn them against using race to make stops. But last week he said, "I am not naive enough to think these racial profiles are not occurring."
County Executive James N. Robey (D), who also pointed out Howard's clean record on such profiles, took a similar posture. "We're not saying that it doesn't occur here," he said.
New Jersey officials had long maintained otherwise until complaints by several activist groups persuaded Whitman to put in place a monitoring system similar to the one Howard will use. She found that some state troopers singled out minority drivers for traffic stops and were three times more likely to search them than white drivers.
The issue has a lengthy--and litigious--history in Maryland as well.
In 1993, a black motorist who was stopped on Interstate 95 filed a discrimination lawsuit against the Maryland State Police. A settlement was reached that required the state police to collect data on the race of motorists they stop and search. In 1996, a federal judge ruled, based on the data, that the state police had violated the settlement. More detailed race-based data collection was ordered.
In 1998, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a new lawsuit alleging racial profiling. They are trying to make it a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all minority I-95 motorists who were stopped, detained or searched, then released because no wrongdoing was found, in the last four years.
U.S. District Judge Catherine B. Blake has not ruled on the class action request. However, two weeks ago she denied the state's request to throw out part of the lawsuit. The case could drag on for years.
Howard police officers had heard about the lawsuit, but to them, it was a distant issue, someone else's problem. So when Livesay raised the issue during mandatory fall training sessions, eyebrows were raised.
"We were puzzled about it. Does this happen here? Why was he bringing it up?" said Officer James Fitzgerald, president of the Howard County Police Officers Association.
Fitzgerald said he supports Livesay's efforts, adding: "I don't think it affects 99 percent of police officers. It's been going on in a lot of places, though."
Livesay decribed the outreach campaign as a "proactive" approach, designed as much to calm the fears of Howard residents as to fix problems on the police force.
Clearly, the county's effort is influenced by controversies elsewhere that are not limited to racial profiling. At last week's news conference, zero-tolerance policing, an issue raging in Baltimore but somewhat foreign to Howard, surfaced. Zero tolerance policing aims to improve overall quality of life by having police aggressively make arrests for even petty crimes such as loitering and urinating in public. The theory is this deters greater crimes.
"Zero tolerance means lock up the Negroes," Wright said during the news conference, as Livesay and Robey, seated next to him, turned somewhat ashen-faced.
At the moment, the issue of racial profiling is far from from a controversy in Howard. In Baltimore, the debate over zero-tolerance policing has led to tensions even between white and black police officers. Howard's black officers applauded Livesay's efforts on profiling.
"Everyone that I talked to was glad that the chief brought it up. We're glad he's being proactive," said Cpl. Luther Johnson, president of the 35-member Minority Officers Association.
Although no officers have ever been accused of racial profiling, procedures are in place to deal with such a case. If an officer was suspected of using racial profiling, the internal affairs division would conduct an investigation. If further evidence was found, the officer would have a hearing before an internal trial board. If the officer was found guilty, Livesay said, he would recommend termination.
Wright applauded the county's tough stance.
"This chief is serious. This county executive is serious," he said. "Otherwise you could lose community trust of the police department."