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The Daily Tar Heel

Bill May Preclude Profiling

The illegal search-and-seizure case that ensued was one of two N.C. cases taken by the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1990s in an effort to identify and stop the practice of discriminatory traffic stops and searches.

The state settled the case out of court.

Seven years later, efforts across North Carolina to address concerns about racial profiling could change the way law enforcement agencies in Orange County record traffic stop and search statistics.

If it becomes law, a bill filed February in the General Assembly will bring all county and most municipal law enforcement agencies under a provision of a state statute.

The ACLU of North Carolina has called this new statute the first state "Driving While Black or Brown" legislation.

Proponents of Senate Bill 147 say it is an important step toward identifying and stopping the practice of racial profiling, but not all law enforcement professionals in Orange County agree that the law is necessary.

"We feel that a great deal of racial profiling is still going on, and we can't get a handle on it without local enforcement statistics," said Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, one of the bill's sponsors.

Kinnaird said she is unaware of any racial profiling issues in the counties she represents, which include Orange and Chatham.

"But we don't know until we find out, and we can't find out until we have statistics and data," she said.

The current statute requires state law enforcement agencies to compile and submit to the State Bureau of Investigation data about all traffic stops, including, among other things, the race or ethnicity of the driver and the action taken by the officer or officers making the stop.

This data is compiled and made available to the public on the N.C. SBI Web site of at

The data shows that from Jan. 1, 2000, to Jan. 31, 2001, black drivers stopped by the N.C. Highway Patrol were searched almost twice as often as were white drivers.

But this data is not available at the local level because the statute does not include municipal or county law enforcement agencies.

The Chapel Hill and Carrboro Police Departments and Orange County Sheriff's Department, for example, keep statistics only about citations.

All information about stops made by these agencies is processed through the communications division of Orange County Emergency Management in Hillsborough, but that information does not necessarily include detailed data about the stop, said Gwen Snowden, the agency's deputy director.

"Anytime (the police) do a traffic stop, they call into us," she said. "All we would get is the license number and location, and if the officer happened to say that it was a white male or a black male, we would get that as well."

Snowden said officers did not have to give the reason for the stop.

While proponents of S.B. 147 say information about stops is important to the fight against profiling, some local law enforcement officers say the bill might be unnecessary and counterproductive.

"Don't get me wrong, if there is a perception of racial profiling, we need to do everything we can to investigate and alleviate peoples' concerns," said Carrboro police Capt. John Butler. "But we've already done studies on this in our department, and it's pretty balanced in terms of who's getting cited."

Butler said he was not familiar with the bill's specific provisions, but he feared the bill could negatively affect both the public's perception of the police and the job done by officers.

"The only thing it's going to do is, even if we only have to give a warning we're going to have to tie people up while we write it up the information," he said. "If you've got lazy police officers-which, thank God, we don't -- it's going to keep them from stopping people."

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But the issue of racial profiling is too important to be disregarded for convenience, said Alan McSurely, a Chapel Hill-based civil rights attorney.

"Ask any black person; they don't just suspect that racial profiling is going on, they know it," he said. "It's happened to their friends. It's happened to their mothers, fathers, sons and daughters."

McSurely and others say passing S.B. 147 is just the one step toward documenting the practice of profiling.

Matt Zingraff, associate dean for research in N.C. State University's College of Humanities and Social Sciences, researches racial profiling in North Carolina.

He said traffic stops were not the only stops potentially involving racial profiling.

"Walking stops are detentions, too," he said. "There are fewer cases where people are contesting their detentions and searches when they're walking.

"There's a whole world of racial profiling going on that's not being explored."

The City Editor can be reached


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