Nearly 20 years ago, Montgomery County was at the center of a controversy over whether police officers were racial profiling in traffic stops.
Racial profiling — or stopping or arresting someone based on their ethnicity, race or country of origin — is illegal in Maryland and in many states around the country.
Now, U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin wants to take the prohibition nationwide.
Linda Plummer, the branch secretary for the Montgomery County NAACP, and president when the original complaint with the Justice Department was made, said racial profiling in the county is not the issue it once was.
“I think [racial profiling] still exists — not to extent of ... back then, but yes, it still exists,” she said. “It’s improved. We still get sporadic complaints, but it has improved,” she said.
Montgomery County Police had been the subject of an investigation by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, after a local NAACP chapter complained that officers were engaging in excessive force, harassment or racial profiling in traffic stops.
The investigation concluded with a voluntary agreement between county police and the Department of Justice to collect data on traffic stops, making it one of the first in the region to implement such a program.
The county agreed to bar its officers from considering race in making traffic stops, unless it was part of a specific description of a criminal suspect.
Police also agreed to track all traffic stops by documenting the driver’s race, gender and the reason for the stop. Now, all traffic stops in Maryland are similarly recorded.
In the investigation that led up to the consent decree, statistics showed minorities made up about 14 percent of the county’s driving population, but received 21 percent of the traffic citations in 1997 and 1998, according to a Baltimore Sun article.
Police said the data collection failed to take into account the fact that many drivers who were stopped didn’t live in Montgomery County but traveled through it.
In 2004, for example, police told The Washington Post that 26 percent of red-light camera stops were for cars owned by African-Americans — similar to the ratio of stops Montgomery County officers made.
Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said county police use training to make sure officers know how to make legal stops and to avoid stopping or arresting someone based on racial profiling.
Capt. Terry Pierce, the department’s director of policy and planning, said training is hammered into cadets in their academy and with officers during trainings.
“Officers are clearly trained that they must have probable cause to make an arrest — and reasonable suspicion to talk to someone,” he said. “You’ve got to explain exactly why you stopped someone.”
In most cases where improper profiling does take place, “cops aren’t remembering their training,” Manger said.
Pierce was not sure how many racial-profiling complaints county police have received this year. However, he said, from the beginning of the year to Nov. 14 — the most recent data the department has available — internal affairs investigated 71 formal complaints of officer conduct.
That includes complaints of discriminatory profiling by race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, as well as unreasonable search and seizures, and complaints about false arrests he said.
Over a similar period of time in 2012, there were 90 formal complaints the department investigated, he said.
“I’m glad we don’t get lot of complaints, but I still think we’ve got to be ever vigilant,” Manger said.
“Or does it mean people aren’t calling because they don’t think its going to do any good? [I] hope it wouldn’t be that situation,” he said, explaining that police try to meet regularly with different communities to discuss concerns they might have.
“The fact is that having this dialogue regularly every month, for years, trust builds up and you start chipping away at this problem,” he said.
The issue has new timeliness as Cardin (D) of Pikesville makes a second effort at passing a bill that would ban racial profiling.
“I think most people would be surprised to know that there is not a national law on this,” Cardin said in a recent interview. “We need an effective way to prevent the use of racial profiling, and that”s what my legislation does.”
He also said that his bill provides resources for training and sharing best practices, and provides an effective way for someone who has been a victim of racial profiling to get relief.
According to Sue Walitsky, his communication director, a bill to outlaw racial profiling almost was passed shortly before Sept. 11.
“Attitudes changed, and people backed off,” she said. “It has taken more than a decade to build momentum back.”
Since 2005, the bill has been introduced in the House or Senate at least five times by different sponsors, she said.
Cardin first introduced his bills in 2011 and 2013, she said.
The bill would prohibit any law enforcement agent from using broad assumptions and stereotyping based on race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin as a factor in their investigations and activities. It would allow only the use of information related to race, ethnicity or national origin when there is trustworthy information on a specific description of a suspect, relevant to places and time frames possibly linked to an incident or scheme.
James Stowe, who heads the county’s Office of Human Rights, said that racial profiling in Montgomery County isn’t the issue it once was.
“Years ago, that was an issue for us,” he said, but added that his office does not currently receive many complaints of racial profiling, and credited community outreach by police to help keep those numbers low.
“If issues bubble up, [Manger] knows about them pretty quickly,” he said. “He has been very receptive to hearing those concerns.”
The NAACP’s Plummer said she has not been as involved with the Montgomery County NAACP in recent years, but got re-involved about six months ago. Since she has gotten re-involved, she has received five or six complaints of racial profiling, she said. Despite those numbers, she said the issue is one she wants Montgomery County Police to continue to take seriously.
She said the local branch would be developing a more hands-on criminal justice committee to work more closely with police starting next year.
“I’m expecting leadership to make sure it’s on the forefront ... to make sure it’s part of their weekly meetings, and etched into their brains that it is something they should not be tolerating and will not tolerate,” she said.