By Jonathan Selden
While driving, being black is a serious problem in Utah.
At least that”s the perception of minority groups who testified before the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee Thursday at the State Capitol.
They were there supporting a bill targeted at ending the alleged police tactic of pulling drivers over because of their ethnic description, sometimes called racial profiling.
The committee overwhelmingly decided to send the bill to the full House for consideration, with only one member voting against it.
“Unless we solve this problem, all of us, not just people of color, stand to lose,” said the bill”s sponsor, Rep. Duane Bourdeaux, D-Salt Lake.
Bourdeaux is the only black member of the state legislature.
His bill asks the state Driver License Division to record the race of drivers and monitor when police stop them.
In addition, it requires the division to list the reason drivers are pulled over and the identity of the police officer involved.
This was unsettling for some lawmakers who don”t see an easy way to monitor race.
“It gets into a can of worms. It gets difficult,” said Rep. Brent Parker, R-Wellsville, the only dissenter on the committee. “This system makes it extremely inaccurate. Do we have a color chart?”
Rep. Loraine Pace, R-Logan, argued there was no evidence to show the bill was needed.
“I need to see hard facts,” she said.
Parker also expressed concerned about officers being subjected to racial quotas if they pull over too many minority drivers.
“Will officers be open to civil rights violations if they go beyond this quota?” he asked.
Parker questioned Bourdeaux about whether a police officer might hesitate to stop a carload of people wearing gang attire if he is worried about violating racial profiling policies.
“He should hesitate if he truly doesn”t have a reason for stopping them,” Bourdeaux answered.
Bourdeaux is sponsoring the bill for the second time after a weakened version failed in the Senate during the final days of last year”s legislative session.
But this time Bourdeaux has constructed stronger support for the legislation, including the new Attorney General.
“If there is a perception that (minorities) are being treated unfairly, we have to address that,” said Jade Pusey, the Executive Director of Law Enforcement in the Attorney General”s office.
Edward L. Lewis, president of the tri-state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he doesn”t see the bill as a stumbling block for law enforcement.
“We want all our (police) officers to uphold the law,” he said. But he added, “If you”re black, everything else goes out the window.”
The Utah Highway Patrol denied racial profiling is a problem in its ranks.
“Racial profiling is illegal. We do not condone or support it. We try never to violate people”s civil rights,” said Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Doug McCleve.
Nevertheless, the Highway Patrol may decide to endorse the bill after a scheduled meeting with Bourdeaux on Monday.
“The Utah Highway Patrol supports anything that furthers civil rights,” McCleve said.
But Sgt. Ron Stalworth, a peace officer for 15 years with the Utah Division of Public Safety, which encompasses the Highway Patrol, disagreed.
“Profiling, based on race, has occurred in the state of Utah. Anyone who denies racial profiling is extremely na?ve or is being deliberately deceiving,” he said.
Many witnesses at the meeting described their experiences with Utah police.
James Gonzalez, who is Hispanic, recounted being pulled over in central Utah.
“I was given no ticket, no warning, no real reason. I understand that racial profiling exists. I have lived in this dark skin for 37 years in this society.”