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Officers seek study on racial profiling

Officers seek study on racial profiling


January 11, 2003

SANTA CRUZ ó Local police say they donít engage in racial profiling. But
theyíre hiring a consultant to make sure their perception is reality.

The Board of Supervisors this week approved a Sheriffís Office request to
spend $23,292 to hire Lamberth Consulting of Delaware to analyze their
traffic stop statistics, among other things.

Santa Cruz, Watsonville, Capitola and Scotts Valley police departments have
pitched in to cover the $59,500 total.

A report is due in six months.

"Itís a significant issue," said Santa Cruz Police Chief Steve Belcher. "We
need to know if itís a perception or reality issue, and we need to address

"Thatís the right thing to do. I donít want to wait until weíre dragged into

Molly Flaherty, who works at the Beach Flats Community Center, is one of
several people who say police pick on minorities.

"Generally people in this neighborhood believe it does happen," she said,
"and I agree."

Sergio Martinez, a county youth counselor, said he has been stopped by
Watsonville police several times ó stopped, questioned and released because
he is Latino.

"Itís very upsetting," said Martinez, who grew up in Santa Cruz and says it
happens in that city too. "Itís this assumption that because you look a
certain way you might have done something wrong."

In one troubling encounter, Martinez said, an officer followed him down
Airport Boulevard about 5 miles to a fast food restaurant on Freedom

There, in the drive-through, two squad cars pulled up behind him, lights
flashing and "all gung-ho," aggressively questioning him and driving off
after refusing to give him their badge numbers, he said.

The officers told him a white vehicle had been involved in a theft; Martinez
said he was driving a white sport-utility vehicle with a distinctive red

"They put on a real bad attitude, and it was scary as heck," he said. "My
wife was with me and she was eight months pregnant. It was totally

Racial profiling, or stopping people based primarily on their ethnicity,
became a national issue in the mid-1990s, said Stanford University law
professor Ralph Banks.

"Itís almost impossible to know if it has gotten better," he said.
"Certainly the perception (that it is still a problem) persists."

Lawsuits were first filed against police agencies on the East Coast, Banks
said. A lawsuit against the California Highway Patrol is pending.

The CHP tightened its search procedures in 2001, though in a 1999 report the
agency stated it did not engage in racial profiling.

In 1999, Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a bill requiring police agencies to collect
data on ethnicity, but asked the CHP to collect it for three years.

County agencies have received grants and voluntarily started collecting
traffic stop data that shows the race of the driver stopped, officials said.

Reports now also show the reason for the stop, the age and gender of the
person stopped, the disposition of the contact and whether a search was

"Itís an ongoing issue," Banks said. "Most studies show that racial
minorities, particularly blacks and Latinos, are more likely to be stopped
and searched, but itís hard to know.

"It depends on who you talk to. It can be quite complex to interpret the
data. Things are not always what they seem," Banks said.

Sheriff Mark Tracy agrees that data interpretation can be tricky.

He expects the consultants to find a sound way to analyze the traffic stops
and to count the tourists, farmworkers and others that make the county

"You canít just use census numbers," he said.

San Jose police "got slammed" by interest groups when they released traffic
stop data without an agreed upon comparison standard, he said.

"Weíve taken several steps already," he said, including increased officer

"Police officers need to have good reason to make car stops," he said. "That
is what this is about. Itís about doing police work the right way, and when
officers are approached on that level, they all respond."

The analysis could become a model for other police agencies, Belcher said.

The consultants will meet with community groups and work alongside the
National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, he said.

Banks says it sounds good.

"Bringing Dr. Lamberth in is a promising beginning, but a lot has to be done
after that," he said.

Martinez says that he hasnít been pulled over for about two years, perhaps
because he is active in the community.

But, he said, he believes it still happens. He also believes an independent
agency should study police complaints, he said, not police.

"If you have a new car, you stole it. If itís an old car, youíre up to no
good," he said.

"I realize there are a lot of fair and honest cops, but when that is not the
face you see ... itís unfortunate."

Watsonville Police Chief Terry Medina said he doesnít believe discrimination
by police is an issue in town.

"That doesnít mean people havenít felt discriminated against, but we have
had relatively few complaints," he said. "There are not many communities
where the majority are minorities.

"What does it mean to stop too many minorities if they are the majority? Iím
looking forward to the study."
Contact Cathy Redfern at credfern (at)


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