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Local student helps ACLU

by Shawn Gainer

STAFF WRITER

A Clarksburg resident who says he feels a special connection to those he sees as disadvantaged designed an "anti-racial profiling" campaign for the West Virginia Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union this summer.

Joshua Whitehair, a 1997 graduate of Robert C. Byrd High School, is a senior at WVU, majoring in political science and philosophy. Whitehair said he hopes to go on to study civil rights law and would ultimately like to become an attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.

Whitehair is also a 2000 Truman Scholar. He said 60 to 70 of the $30,000 scholarships are awarded yearly to help students interested in public service go to graduate school or law school.

His ACLUsummer internship was very much in line with his long-term goals, Whitehair said.

"My general interest in civil rights comes for two reasons. First, I have a devout respect for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, especially in regard to equal opportunity," he said. "Second, I seem to feel a special connection to those who are facing an uphill battle in life -- minorities and other disadvantaged groups."

Whitehair said the anti-profiling campaign was his major project with the ACLU.

"I did other things and they gave me choices, but I was eager to take on racial profiling," he said.

Racial profiling, Whitehair contends, is the police practice of stopping certain motorists because of suspicions that members of certain ethnic groups are more likely to commit certain types of crimes, particularly drug offenses.

He alleges the practice started as the result of Operation Jump Start, a federal drug enforcement training program for police officers.

Whitehair believes racial profiling happens in West Virginia, particularly with out-of state travelers, though he does not have any statistical evidence of it.

"I'm positive if you just ask any African-American if they've had any experience with racial profiling, they'll tell you stories," he said. "I think the problem is that we don't deal with race issues because minorities are a small portion of the state's population. Because of that, the issue simply gets ignored.

"I think West Virginia is an accepting state with good people who accept those with differences, but these came down from training in federal drug programs."

Whitehair said much of his ACLUeffort was spent on data collection. He sent letters to every sheriff's department in the state, selected city police chiefs and more than 60 state police detachments.

"We asked them to voluntarily collect data on people who have been subject to traffic stops. Specifically, we want the race of the motorists," he said. "We wonder whether this is a problem. We're sure it is, but data collection will give us information on where the problem exists and why it's happening."

Also, Whitehair said he helped draft an anti-profiling bill he hopes will be introduced in the next session of the state Legislature.

"I researched various bills throughout the country, looked at laws in West Virginia and have contacted various legislators," he said. "We haven't received any official responses yet, but several asked us to send them a copy. They seemed eager to help."

Staff writer Shawn Gainer can be reached at 626-1442.

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