Blacks account for more than 70 percent of the nation's traffic stops while comprising less than 20 percent of its drivers. But victims rarely file formal complaints out of fear of police retribution or because they feel powerless to fight the bias, according to civil libertarians and legal experts. Therefore, the evidence is mostly anecdotal.1 Below we present some of th evidence.


1. Connecticut

The issue of "driving while black" has arisen in several incidents. Most prominent, perhaps, was the disclosure in 1998 of a 5 year old intenal memo (click to see) by the chief of an all-white police force in Trumbull, a suburb of Bridgeport. In the memo, Chief Theodore Ambrosini advised officers of a series of armed robberies in town and urged them to take the offensive. "One form of deterrence might be to develop a sense of proclivity toward the type of persons and vehicles which are usually involved in these crimes,'' the memo said. "Not only is it our obligation to enforce the motor vehicle laws, but in doing so, we are provided with a profile of our community and those who travel within its boundaries."

One prominent victim of the Trumbull profiling was Alvin Penn, an African-American Bridgeport Democrat who is deputy president in the state Senate. On Mother's Day in 1996, a Trumbull police officer stopped Penn as he drove in a van through this predominantly white, suburban town, and asked to see his license and registration. As the officer gave the license back, he asked Penn if he knew which town he was in. Bridgeport, the state's largest city where blacks and Hispanics comprise 85 percent of the 140,000 residents, borders Trumbull ­ which has 98 percent of its 31,800 white.

"I asked why I was being stopped and why I needed to be aware of which town I was in. I wanted to know what difference that made,'' Penn said, recalling how he got lost and was turning around on a dead-end street when the officer blocked his van with a patrol car. "He told me he didn't have to give a reason for stopping me and said if I made an issue of it he would give me a ticket for speeding," Penn said.

At the time Trumbull Police Chief Theodore J. Ambrosini publicly supported the officer, insisting he had "made a legitimate stop," and denied that racial profiling -- the police practice of using minor motor vehicle infractions as a ploy to stop and harass minorities driving through mostly white towns -- had ever been employed in Trumbull.

The internal memo written by Ambrosini that was leaked by officers in the all-white 68 member department in June not only condones racial profiling, they say, but contains coded references that encourages officers to do it. In the memo, Ambrosini advises officers of a series of armed robberies in town and urges them to take the offensive.

Trumbull, which is now under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice, is not the only Connecticut community to experience profiling. In suburban Avon, for example, former police officers corroborated the existence of the long-rumored "Barkhamsted Express," a slang term for the routine stopping of black and Hispanic motorists traveling through town from Hartford to the Barkhamsted reservoir.

Sources: The Hartford Courant and The Boston Globe

2a. Maryland - highway

In 1997, Charles and Etta Carter, an elderly African-American couple from Pennsylvania, were stopped by Maryland State Police on their 40th wedding anniversary. The troopers searched their car and brought in drug-sniffing dogs. During the course of the search, their daughter's wedding dress was tossed onto one of the police cars and, as trucks passed on I-95, it was blown to the ground. Ms. Carter was not allowed to use the restroom during the search because police officers feared that she would flee. Their belongings were strewn along the highway, trampled and urinated on by the dogs. No drugs were found and no ticket was issued by the state trooper. The Carter's eventually reached a settlement with the Maryland State Police.

Originally published in "Race-Profiling Again Attacked," by Catherine Brennan in the Daily Record, Volume 212, No. 4

2b. Maryland - highway

Gary D. Rodwell repeatedly refused to consent to a search of his vehicle when he was stopped for three hours on I-95. He said that the officer threatened to arrest him and called in a canine unit to search the vehicle. When no drugs were found, the officer accused Rodwell of lying, took his keys and called a tow truck to impound the Pontiac Bonneville Rodwell was driving. Rodwell had to pay the tow truck driver to get his car back.

Originally published in "Plaintiffs Tell of Racial Bias by State Police in I-95 Stops," by Paula Lavigne in the Baltimore Sun on June 5, 1998.

2c. Maryland - highway

Robert Wilkins, a Harvard Law School graduate who is a public defender in Washington, DC, went to a family funeral in Ohio in May of 1992. On the return trip he was accompanied by his aunt and uncle and 29-year old cousin. The group rented a Cadillac for the trip home. The cousin was stopped for speeding in western-Maryland while driving 60 miles per hour on the interstate. The state trooper who stopped the car ordered everyone out so that it could be searched for drugs. The group was forced to stand on the side of the interstate in the rain for an extended period of time while officers and drug-sniffing dogs searched their car. Nothing was found. Wilkins filed suit with the ACLU and received a settlement from the state of Maryland.

Originally published in "Driving While Black on 95" in The Washington Post on November 16, 1996.

3a. Michigan - Detroit

A highly publicized incident occurred May 31, when Royal Oak and Huntington Woods police pulled over Dennis Archer Jr., 30, a black attorney and son of Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, and held him at gunpoint. He was driving a vehicle that resembled one used in a robbery. Royal Oak Police Chief Mel Johnson said an investigation of Archer Jr.'s complaint found no wrongdoing. Archer Jr. was not satisfied and has continued to accuse the officers of racism.

3b. Michigan - Detroit

After a harrowing drive down West Chicago in Detroit last year, Chris White says his respect for police is dwindling. On a Saturday afternoon in May 1998, White said he looked up and found four black Glock pistols aimed at his car. "We want to see license and ID. We want it now," a Detroit police officer screamed commands as he approached White. Three other officers surrounded his black Dodge Neon. All were white. Officers searched his car, found nothing illegal and left, White said. White did not file a complaint with the department, thinking it would not make a difference. The only evidence of the event is in White himself. When he drives at night, he says, anxiety keeps him on edge, alerting him not only to an opportunistic carjacker, but also to police.

3c. Michigan - Detroit

Shortly after earning his sergeant's rank in 1983, Napoleon, who is black, was off-duty and driving at 8 Mile and Grand River in Livonia, near the Detroit border. A white Livonia officer pulled over his car. "From the moment he approached my car with a gun drawn, I made sure I placed my hands in clear sight, gripping the steering wheel," Napoleon said. Napoleon said the officer kept his gun drawn after inspecting Napoleon's police badge and identification. Minutes later, the officer's supervisor arrived with an attitude Napoleon said prevented him from filing a complaint later. "The supervisor's first question was 'Sergeant, what's your problem?' He was predisposed that I had a problem," he said. "I must admit, it was a pretty frightening experience. "I'm convinced that the only reason I was stopped was because I'm African American."

3d. Michigan

In Michigan last year, officials invited African Americans and other minorities to air their grievances about police mistreatment at an all-day forum. Among those telling their stories was Alicia Smith of Oak Park, a 19-year-old African-American who was driving to a movie with friends in her hometown when two white officers stopped her without explanation and asked where she was going.

  "There was no probable cause," said Smith, who wasn't ticketed. "It was just harassment." Another African American woman told of her husband's experience of being stopped and warned about a "tilted license plate."

  Paul Worthy, a 59-year-old retiree, said he was stopped ­ and released without a ticket ­ by white officers in Detroit while driving a Cadillac.

  "I'm no criminal," Worthy told The Detroit News. "I worked at GM as a skilled tradesman for $25 an hour. I worked every day just like that police officer did."

Source: The Detroit News

4. Arizona

On June 4, Larrel Riggs, a 42-year old marketing representative, was in his car driving to the Vine, a bar and restaurant in Scottsdale. He noticed a police car behind him as the car flashed its lights indicating for him to pull over. He did and proceeded to get out of the car, having no idea why he had been stopped. The officers approached his car with their hands on their weapons and instructed him to get back into the car. They demanded to see his driver's license and registration, keeping their hands on their guns the entire time. Riggs was alarmed at the police officers' actions who were treating this as a "high-level" criminal rather than a routine traffic stop. The officers eventually gave Riggs a citation for an illegible license plate and let him go after about half an hour.

Originally reported in the Phoenix New Times on July 3, 1998.

5a. California - San Diego

In October of 1997, San Diego Chargers football player Shawn Lee was pulled over, and he and his girlfriend were handcuffed and detained by police for half an hour on the side of Interstate 15. The officer said that Lee was stopped because he was driving a vehicle that fit the description of one stolen earlier that evening. However, Lee was driving a Jeep Cherokee, a sport utility vehicle, and the reportedly stolen vehicle was a Honda sedan.

Originally published as "Driving While Black Examined in San Diego" in the San Diego Union Tribune on December 13, 1997.

5b. California - Santa Monica

Two officers in police cruisers, followed George Washington and Darryl Hicks, both African-American men, as they drove into the parking garage of the hotel where they were staying in Santa Monica. The men were ordered out of the car at gun point, handcuffed and placed in separate police cars while the officers searched their car and checked their identification. The police justified this detention because the men allegedly resembled a description of two suspects being sought for 19 armed robberies and one of the men seemed to be "nervous". The men filed suit against the officers and the court found that neither man fit the descriptions of the robbers, and that the robberies had not even occurred in the City of Santa Monica.

Originally published in "United by Anger," by Andrea Ford in the Los Angeles Times on November 6, 1996.

6a. Maine - Portland

The Portland Press Herald last year reported that the city's minority residents feel the pressure of police bias. In a front-page article, the newspaper told the story of Michael Stovall, a 35-year-old lawyer who passed a police officer going in the opposite direction on a city street and watched as the patrolman made a U-turn and pulled up behind him.  

Stovall was followed for several blocks while the officer spoke into his radio. Finally, the newspaper said, the patrolman left, leaving Stovall to wonder.

Source: The Portland Press Herald

6b. Maine - Portland

Another African-American, Judith Hyman, said she was stopped by a Portland police officer while driving on a city street with her son, who is black, and his girlfriend, who is white.

"The officer pulled us over to see if we had our seat belts on," Hyman said. "We all were wearing seat belts and I wasn't speeding, so, really why were we stopped?"

Source: The Portland Press Herald

7. Colorado

Officials in Eagle County paid $800,000 in damages in 1995 to black and Latino motorists stopped on Interstate 70 solely because they fit a drug courier profile. The payment settled a class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of 402 people stopped between August 1988 and August 1990 on I-70 between Eagle and Glenwood Springs, none of whom were ticketed or arrested for drugs

One of the plaintiffs, Jhenita Whitfield, who is black, said she and her sister, who is in the Navy, were stopped May 5, 1989, while driving through Eagle County from San Diego with four small children. She said she was told that she failed to signal properly before changing lanes. The deputy then asked to search her car. She consented.

"I didn't want any hassle," she said. "I didn't feel I had a choice. The kids were hungry and one had to go to the bathroom. I figured, let's do it and get the hell out of here."

The agreement called for the case's dismissal and required that police not stop, seize, or search a person "unless there is some objective reasonable suspicion that the person has done something wrong."

Source: Rocky Mountain News

8. Florida

Last April, Aaron Campbell was pulled over by Orange County sheriff's deputies while on the Florida turnpike. The stop ended with him being wrestled to the ground, hit with pepper spray and arrested. It turned out that Campbell was a fellow police officer, a major with the Metro-Dade Police Department, and had identified himself as such when he was pulled over for an illegal lane change and having an obscured license tag.

Originally published in "Police Profiling Goes on Trial" in the Washington Times on January 12, 1998.

9a. Indiana - Carmel

Sgt. David Smith, an African-American police officer, was pulled over while driving an unmarked car in the City of Carmel. Sgt. Smith was wearing a full uniform at the time, but he was not wearing a hat which would have identified him as a police officer. According to a complaint filed with the ACLU, the trooper who stopped Smith appeared to be "shocked and surprised" when Sgt. Smith got out of the car. The trooper explained that he had stopped Smith because he had three antennas on the rear of his car and quickly left the scene.

Originally published in "Making Traffic Stops Based on Race," by Sheila Kennedy in the Indianapolis Star on January 29, 1997.

9b. Indiana - Fort Wayne

More than 200 minorities have complained that local police in Fort Wayne, Indiana, routinely pull them over, screaming racial epithets, handcuffing, searching and otherwise harassing them.

Originally published in "New traffic Offense: DWB," by Bonnie Blackburn in the Journal Gazette on January 12, 1997.

10. North Carolina - highway

Nelson Walker, a young Liberian man attending college in North Carolina, was driving along I-95 in Maryland when he was pulled over by state police who said he wasn't wearing a seatbelt. The officers detained him and his two passengers for two hours as they searched for illegal drugs, weapons, or other contraband. Finding nothing in the car, they proceeded to dismantle the car and removed part of a door panel, a seat panel and part of the sunroof. The officers found nothing and in the end handed Walker a screwdriver and said, "You're going to need this" as they left the scene. (Originally published in "Raleigh Men Join Suit Against Maryland Police," by John Sullivan in the News & Observer on June 11, 1998.)

11. New York - highway

Collie Brown was driving from Albany to Bethlehem, with his young daughter asleep in the car, when he noticed that his headlights were dimming. He stopped the car and got out to see what was causing the problem. A Bethlehem police car pulled up behind him with it's lights flashing, and the officer asked if he needed any help. When Brown replied that he did not need any assistance, the officer told him to get behind the car and proceeded to handcuff him. The officer informed Brown that the car had been reported as stolen, which was true. Brown had reported the car stolen many months earlier after it had been hot-wired in front of his home in Albany. The Albany police had recovered the car a week after it was reported stolen. At no point was Brown ever asked for his registration or diver's license prior to being handcuffed in order to prove that the car did indeed belong to him. The officer eventually retrieved Brown's wallet from the car and discovered that the car did belong to him, and Brown was released.

Originally published in "Black driver stopped for stealing - his own car," by Dan Lynch in the Albany Times Union on January 21, 1997.

12a. Pennsylvania - Philadelphia

In yesterday's Daily News, reporter Leon Taylor recorded the experiences of several prominent black and Latino Philadelphians who have been stopped and questioned, often without being told why: People like former Mayor Wilson Goode, city Managing Director Joe Certaine, City Councilman Michael Nutter and the Rev. John Barfield.  

The Rev. Kermit Newkirk, whose daughter was with him, described his dilemma: "Here I am trying to teach my daughter that the policemen is your friend. She's asking me why is he being so nasty, and I could't even give her an answer." 

Source Philadelphi Inquirer 

12b. Pennyslvania - Pittsburg

Jonny Gammage was pulled over while driving his football star cousin's Jaguar at 2 A.M. on October 12. As Gammage pulled over a total of five Brentwood police cars arrived on the scene. One of the officers said that Gammage ran three red lights before stopping after the officer flashed his lights at him. The officer ordered Gammage out of the car and saw him grab something that was reportedly a weapon, but in reality was just a cellular phone. The officer knocked the phone out of Gammage's hand and a scuffle followed. The other officers beat Gammage with a flashlight, a collapsible baton and a blackjack as one put his foot on Gammage's neck. Jonny Gammage died, handcuffed, ankles bound, facedown on the pavement shortly after the incident began. He was unarmed. (Originally published in "Under Suspicion," by Thomas Fields-Meyer, et. al in People Magazine on January 15, 1996.

13. South Carolina - highway

 . In 1995, Gardner was stopped while driving a 1990 Lexus on I-85. A laboratory technician at North Bronx Hospital in New York, Gardner was driving with his cousin to visit family in South Carolina when he was pulled over for speeding. The officer asked him to sit in the patrol car and peppered him with questions:

"Where are you going?"

"What is your job?"

"When are you going back?"

The officer then went to Gardner's car and asked the same questions of his cousin, Sharon. He then got permission from Gardner to search his car.

  "I thought he was just going to look in my glove compartment and trunk," Gardner said. But, he said, the officer opened the alarm system and compact disc player. He removed door panels, molding, and seats. He let air out of the tires and rapped on them. Then he deflated the spare and bounced it on the road. He found nothing. Gardner told the newspaper that he left the scene with a $25 seat-belt ticket, an annoying vibration in his Lexus, and the belief that he had been treated unfairly.

  "He claimed I was speeding, but never gave me a speeding ticket," Gardner said. "I think they stopped me because I'm black."

Source: Raleigh News and Observer

14a. Texas - Houston

A 1995 analysis of more than 16 million driving records by The Houston Chronicle found that minority drivers who strayed into the small white enclaves in and around the state's major urban areas were twice as likely as whites to be ticketed for traffic violations. The study found that Hispanics were ticketed most often, though blacks overall faced the sharpest disparities, particularly in the suburbs around Houston where they were more than three times as likely as whites to receive citations.

Bellaire, a mostly white city surrounded by southwest Houston, had the widest disparity in ticketing minorities of any city statewide, with blacks 43 times more likely than whites to receive citations there.

Source: The Houston Chronicle

14b. Texas

Anecdotal evidence is everywhere. Christopher Singleton, a 32-year-old North Dallas accountant, said he has been stopped more times than he can remember, in all types of cities and neighborhoods. "You get stopped when you haven't broken any law," said Mr. Singleton, who is black. "Sometimes they tell you to get out of the car. Sometimes they say they suspect you of doing something you didn't. Sometimes they just look in the car and ask a lot of questions. "It's not that it just happens once or twice. It happens."

William Fletcher, 28, who lives in Houston and travels around the state for his job in the concert and sports ticket industry, said he's resigned to some officers pulling him over for no real reason. It has happened so often that he no longer gives it a second thought. "They claim it's for the taillight or because a headlight is out. That's the excuse," said Mr. Fletcher, who also is black. "You might as well bear with it. Some things you really have no control over."

15. Tennessee - Nashville

 At a May 1999 meeting with the Nashville Human Relations Commission, Mansfield Douglas, a metro councilman, reported that two months earlier he had been pulled over by a police officer in the very district he represents. "He told me there were a lot of people in this area driving without valid licenses and he wanted to make sure mine was valid," Douglas said. "There was no reason at all for him to have done that anyway. It really gives you a sense of outrage, but it can be stopped."

16. Wisconsin - Madison

A hearing in Madison in 1996 on the issue of racially biased traffic enforcement turned into an emotional outpouring, as African-American residents shared accounts of harsh experiences with the Madison police.

  "It's a lot deeper than a ticket," Semell Williams told members of the city's Equal Opportunities Commission.

  Williams said that the previous summer, he had been followed from the Darbo neighborhood by a convoy of police cars that grew to 11 by the time he was pulled over. Before the crowd that had gathered to watch, he was forced to lay face-down in the street as officers trained their guns at him.

  "Do you know how belittling that was?" asked Williams. "And to have 11 guns drawn on you for traveling through the city ­ I could have been dead."

Although the police eventually gave him permission to leave, they offered no explanation or apology, nor was any citation issued.

Source: Capital Times (Madison, Wis.)

17. New Jersey - turnpike I95

 On April 13, 1999 New Jersey residents testified at a legislative hearing held by the Black Caucus and Latino Caucus about the racial profiling allegations. Elmo Randolph, a black dentist, testified that he was stopped more than fifty times on the New Jersey Turnpike over three years, prompting him to sell his BMW so that he would attract less police attention. Governor Whitman dismissed the hearing as political posturing

(David Kocieniewski, "Drivers Tell of Racial Profiling by Troopers," New York Times, April 14, 1999, p. A24).

[1] Estimates from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union. Some numbers have come from a national ACLU hotline for profiling that shows Michigan drivers have logged 127 complaints from April -to Juky - second only to California.

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