Though 12 states and 100 cities across the country already have programs in place to track whether their law enforcement agencies are targeting people for Driving While Black, many cops in Colorado are balking at the prospect of being monitored for their behavior.
This week, state Rep. Peter Groff introduced a bill that would require a statewide data collection system to determine the extent of racial profiling. After several hours of emotional testimony from opponents and supporters of the plan, Groff, a Denver Democrat, has agreed to make some modifications to his proposal and resubmit it to the Civil Justice and Judiciary Committee next week for consideration.
The bill would require law enforcement agencies in cities of more than 75,000 to keep track of the race of the people they stop. The data would be submitted to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, which would compile the information and determine whether police are violating the civil rights of people of color by unfairly targeting them.
"I think there is a problem and we don't know the extent of it," said Rep. Steve Johnson, a Republican who serves on the committee and supports the bill. "When [racial profiling] exists, it breeds distrust between police and minority groups."
A few rogue cops?
As in other parts of the country, law enforcement agencies in Colorado have balked at being required to collect the data, and potentially exposing themselves as targeting minorities.
El Paso County Sheriff John Anderson said that while he is convinced that racial profiling exists in other states, he does not believe it is a problem here. Such profiling, he said, would not be tolerated under his command. "I'm absolutely convinced there is not a problem in my department," Anderson said.
But Groff dismissed that claim. "It's similar to people complaining bitterly about how poor Congress is, but then saying, 'except my Congressperson is great,' " he said. "It doesn't make sense for cops to say, 'oh yes it happens, but not here.'"
Groff and other proponents say their intent is not to paint law enforcement agencies as racist. But he, and other minority leaders want to be able to determine how widespread the practice is.
"We saw, with the testimony and the honesty that was expressed [on Tuesday] that there is a problem," Groff said. "Are we talking about a few rogue cops, or is there a systemwide problem? Has the cancer spread throughout the body? That's what this will tell us."
During his testimony before the committee, Anderson said that of 8,000 traffic stops last year, his department did not record a single complaint that someone felt they were being pulled over because of their race.
However, Johnson, a Republican from Larimer County, questioned the rationale of such a claim.
"Why would I complain to the police department if I felt like they victimized me?" he asked.
Bill Vandenberg, an organizer with the Colorado Progressive Coalition and a major proponent of the bill, said that though minorities routinely report they are the victims of Driving While Black, or Driving While Brown, many lawmakers also believe the problem doesn't exist in Colorado.
"If we have no problems in Colorado then we can get to work to change the perception that there are problems here," Vandenberg said. "What we may also find is we do have a problem here and we can then get to work to solve it."
Last September, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens spoke out against racial profiling, and asked the Colorado State Partrol and other state agencies to take steps to ensure it is not occurring. However, at the same time, the governor said he was pretty sure racial profiling does not exist.
"We call that pretty toothless," Vandenberg said. "How do you find out the magnitude if you don't collect the information?"
Crack on the windshield
Last summer, the Colorado Progressive Coalition sponsored a community survey in Denver's largely black Cole neighborhood. Many citizens reported they believed that they have been the victims of racial profiling by police officers.
"People say they were stopped and told by the officer that there's a small crack on their windshield or their temporary license plate isn't placed in the correct spot," Vandenberg said.
The phenomenon of targeting minorities at traffic stops has been widely exposed and documented in other parts of the country, particularly on the East and West coasts. Cops there have targeted minorities because they fit their images of drug traffickers even though, as Sheriff Anderson pointed out, white people are five to six times as likely to be involved in drug trafficking.
Anderson said that if they were required to collect the data, his officers would end up taking more time during traffic stops. Groff discounted the argument outright.
"I've heard concerns from local law enforcement officials that it could be inconvenient, but I'm not sure about inconvenient; it's also inconvenient when they are stopping people of color," Groff said.
Most importantly, Anderson said, he is proactive not only within the department, but in the community and is a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He meets regularly with minority leaders, including the head of the Colorado Springs Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and said he would know if there were any problems.
"It's not simply lip service, I care about our relationship in our minority communities," Anderson said. "I have a great deal of respect for our minority communities."
However, the president of the Colorado Springs Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Roman Tafoya, pointed out that while he has had meetings with Anderson and city police Chief Loren Kramer, he is far less likely to be the victim of racial profiling than young Hispanics and other people of color.
"If it occurs with young people, usually they wouldn't know what to do, or the process to go through to file a complaint," Tafoya said.
Last summer, with the Hispanic Chamber's help, local law enforcement organized a focus group of 25 minority Colorado Springs youth to talk about their experiences with cops. Tafoya said many reported that they felt they had been targeted for their race, or that police officers did not inform them why they had been stopped.
Tafoya said he fully supports Groff's bill to implement a formal monitoring system. "We should answer it once and for all," he said.
Tafoya, 55, said that when he was a teenager in Pueblo he got stopped twice a week for what cops told him was a "routine check." "They would check my car and my person and that went on, twice a week, until I left town," he said. "That stays in your mind, and it affects young peoples' relationship with law enforcement in a negative way," he said.