Fighting to Find the Facts: Virginia Organizing Project on Racial Profiling

By Steve Vaughan

Vol. 25, No. 1-4, 2003 p. 10

To solve a problem, one first needs to know how bad the problem is. While that might seem to be stating the obvious, a majority of the Virginia General Assembly disagrees with that common sense assertion.

For the second year in a row, legislators have refused to pass a bill that would require Virginia police to record and retain records on the reasons for and the results of traffic stops in order to come to grips with the extent of the racial profiling problem in Virginia.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that racial profiling abounds in Virginia. The state's principal of the year, an African-American man in Charlottesville, tells of having to carefully teach black students how to deal with police when pulled over for no apparent reason. Just before the legislature began in January, the normally conservative Richmond Times-Dispatch ran an informative story on what appeared to be a pretext stop caught on tape. A key black legislator, Delegate Kenneth Melvin, (D-Portsmouth) cast the deciding vote to kill a bill that would have required primary enforcement of the state's seat belt law--one of Democratic Governor Mark Warner's key legislative goals--for fear that it would serve as an excuse for "driving while black" pretext stops.

Mary Randolph-Preston, a Virginia Organizing Project (VOP) member and law enforcement professional, says that racial profiling is systemic in Virginia. "In the training course, the examples of criminals they use are always people of color," she said.

Lawmakers should never act on the basis of anecdotal evidence, and neither State Senator Henry Marsh, (D-Richmond), the sponsor of an anti-racial profiling bill, or the VOP, wanted the legislature to act rashly. Instead, Senator Marsh's bill took a reasonable approach, seeking the facts through statistical evidence. They weren't interested.

"Do you think that really happens?" asked Senator Steve Newman, (R-Lynchburg), a member of the Transportation Committee that voted Senator Marsh's bill down. Days earlier VOP had arranged a meeting with Newman and his constituents in which he was told about racial profiling in Virginia and in his district.

That meeting, and others like it, were a part of VOP's push to pass Senator Marsh's bill. VOP also sponsored a television forum in Charlottesville to discuss the problem and generated opinion pieces and letters to the editor in support of the bill. Unfortunately, the bill died on a party-line vote in committee.

As they had in 2002, many legislators pleaded poverty, using the state's budget crunch as an excuse to kill Senator Marsh's bill, estimated to cost $1 million.

In 2002 the General Assembly passed a bill supported by Governor Warner that would increase diversity training for the state police. Advocates of ending racial profiling say that's not enough. Many believe that the state police, a well-trained and well-educated force in comparison to local police and sheriffs departments, is likely not the center of the problem. Without detailed statistics on when, where, and how often racial profiling occurs, the state cannot create a training program that addresses the problem. If the state were to document and examine the evidence it would likely find-as has been found with excessive force complaints-that a very small number of law enforcement officers are responsible for a large number of the racial profiling complaints.

VOP continues to support Senator Marsh is his efforts to end racial profiling. He has pledged to reintroduce his bill in the 2004 legislative session and VOP is trying to mobilize grassroots support for the measure. VOP is in the process of planning a media campaign in support of the law in order to get the widest possible exposure for the stories of racial profiling victims in newspapers and on television news programs.

While the reality of racial profiling seems to be well known in the African-American community, it isn't on the radar screen of white Virginians. VOP hopes to change that though grassroots organizing. By emphasizing the extent of the anecdotal evidence of racial profiling, VOP hopes to stimulate Virginians' desire to find out the truth behind the stories by asking their state leaders to compile statistics that will provide the best evidence on the issue.

Because you don't solve a problem by ignoring it.

Steve Vaughan is the Communications Coordinator of the Virginia Organizing Project, a Charlottesville-based statewide grassroots organization dedicated to challenging injustice by empowering people in local communities to address issues that affect the quality of their lives. To learn more about VOP, visit: www.virginia-organizing.org