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Racial profiling not a problem in W.Va., study determines

by James Fisher

STAFF WRITER

CLARKSBURG -- As legislators and police departments across the country struggle with the issue of racial profiling, West Virginia officials say they are confident that minorities are not singled out or harassed here.

The state conducted a study last year to determine if State Police troopers were unfairly targeting minorities in traffic stops. The study was done by the Performance, Evaluation and Research Division of the Office of Legislative Auditor.

The study is admittedly narrow, looking at less than half of the warning citations issued in one month, August 2000. The report focused on 4,835 warnings from the total 10,320 citations issued because the authors concluded profiling "may be more reflected in warning citations than in traffic violation tickets."

Still, State Police Capt. B.D. Gore was encouraged by the results.

"While we believe the study proved we don't have a problem with racial profiling, we have gone a step further and are in the process of establishing a policy and procedures to prevent it from ever happening," he said.

Andrew Schneider, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, questioned the validity of the study.

Schneider believes the study was too narrow to say definitively that racial profiling does not happen here.

West Virginia University sociology professor Jim Nolan said the one-month study may indeed be an accurate representation of State Police methods, although he stopped short of actually endorsing the report. Nolan said he would need to review the report and the study's methodology. In general, however, he said the sampling may be enough.

"What I'd like to know is how they picked the 4,800 (citations)," Nolan said. "Assuming that they were random, I think that would be all right. However, there could be a big chunk missing."

Schneider believes that profiling is happening in West Virginia, and said a comprehensive study is one of his priorities.

"There is definitely racial profiling going on in West Virginia," Schneider said. "In many other states, the ACLU has actively encountered racial profiling and taken steps to try and get rid of it.

"The question isn't whether there is profiling going on," he said. "The question is, how badly is it going on here in West Virginia, and what can we do to address it?"

According to the study, the auditor's findings show that "the agency as a whole is not stopping citizens due to their race."

The report acknowledges that it is not a long-term study and "cannot comment on past practices" of the State Police. The report also does not include data about searches.

The heads of three county police agencies say racial profiling isn't prevalent locally because the percentage of minorities is low.

Bridgeport Police Chief Jack Clayton also noted that the smaller, close-knit communities here tend to lead to better relations between police and the public.

"We're small enough that we're accountable to the community," Clayton said. "We don't get lost in the bureaucracy like they do in, say, (in bigger cities)."

Clarksburg Police Chief John Walker and Harrison County Sheriff Jim Jack also said they didn't believe profiling was a problem.

While Schneider doesn't believe profiling is widespread, he said there are allegations being investigated by the ACLU.

The group has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in Cabell County Circuit Court. The suit says the Huntington Police Department has failed to respond to a request for records about an internal investigation of a possible racial profiling incident.

In May 2000, two Huntington Police officers and a state trooper allegedly detained two African-Americans at a Huntington restaurant. The officers allegedly ordered the two out of their car, accused them of dealing drugs and temporarily detained them.

No drugs were found during a search of the car and the two were released.

"I'm not saying that everyone in law enforcement goes about their job in a racially biased way, but if one or two individuals are carrying out their duties in a racially biased way, it's bad for the department and it's bad for law enforcement in general," Schneider said.

"You're on a slippery slope when you use race as a criteria for potential guilt or innocence."

Allen Lee, president of the Harrison County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he has not seen any evidence of profiling by local police.

He also said he was not aware of any complaints on a state level.

"I can't say too much against our police officers here in Clarksburg," Lee said. "I really don't think our officers are like that. Unless you give them some indication you're breaking the law, I really don't think they bother our people. ... It's not like they just stop a guy walking down the street because he's black."

Walker believes that several high-profile incidents, such as the well-documented problems in New Jersey, have led to officers becoming more aware of how damaging racial profiling can be.

"Training has a lot to do with it, also," Walker said. "If you look at our officers, they not only go to the (State Police) Academy, but they also spend a few months here with a training officer. I don't think it's been a problem here. I think the officers are aware of what's gone on in other places and they don't do it."

Jack said racial profiling isn't something he's had to address since he came into office in January.

"To be honest, racial problems really are at the bottom of my list because we really don't have any," he said. "In law enforcement, you try to do the best you can with what you've got, but profiling or stereotyping someone is not the way to do it."

Staff writer James Fisher can be reached at 626-1446 or by e-mail at jfisher@exponent-telegram.com

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