- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2001

Attorney General John Ashcroft said yesterday that he will step in if lawmakers cannot quickly authorize a comprehensive study of racial profiling among law enforcement agencies.

The new attorney general gave Congress an ultimatum: Get some legislation passed within six months that will find a way to collect racial profiling data, or "I'll simply launch a study of my own, because I think this is an issue of such importance and magnitude that we should proceed with it to make sure that we do what's necessary to correct any abuse and to inventory the nature of this problem," he said.

Mr. Ashcroft noted at the outset of his 45-minute news conference that he was following a directive issued by President Bush, who criticized racial profiling in a joint address to Congress on Tuesday night.

"It's wrong, and we will end it in America," said Mr. Bush, who ordered Mr. Ashcroft to review the controversial practice.

Mr. Ashcroft furthered the urgency of the edict yesterday."I believe that the Congress can and will respond constructively. And I will work with them to make sure that they do respond constructively," he said.

Racial profiling is the practice of making a traffic or personal stop of an individual in which race is used as a factor. It is already prohibited under civil rights statutes.

Minority groups and law enforcement agencies agree that the practice still exists, although a remedy has yet to be determined.

Civil rights activists look to instances in several states, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as examples of profiling. They have drawn attention to what they call "disproportionate" rates of traffic stops of black drivers.

And their leaders have decried failed efforts to halt the purported practice.

"Instances abound … of stops ending in death," noted Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Mr. Ashcroft said that previous bills, such as those introduced last congressional session by Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, and Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, were well-intentioned, despite the fact that both measures died before a vote.

Mr. Ashcroft, who was criticized during his nomination hearings for perceived racial insensitivity, hoped that any legislation would allow the Justice Department to analyze traffic-stop statistics, which already are being compiled by local law enforcement agencies.

He said that when he was a senator, he heard of disturbing incidents involving profiling.

"I have long believed that to treat people solely on the basis of their race was a violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution," Mr. Ashcroft said yesterday.

His promised order may have more force than an executive order issued by President Clinton in June 1999.

Mr. Clinton told the Justice and Transportation departments at that time to develop a proposal within 120 days to collect data on the race, gender and ethnicity of people they stop.

The effort never achieved the desired effect of ending the practice of profiling.

The attorney general yesterday also released a letter dated Wednesday to Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

"I urge you in your capacity [as chairman] … to consider quickly legislation authorizing the Department of Justice to conduct a study of traffic stops data," the letter said.

Mr. Ashcroft on Wednesday visited with a group of Congressional Black Caucus members and promised them that he would attack profiling. His vow was met with skepticism from some of the lawmakers, many of whom continue to be wary of his perceived insensitivity on issues of race.

Mr. Ashcroft was asked yesterday if that skepticism concerned him or would affect his efforts to confront racial profiling.

Mr. Ashcroft said that such reluctance to embrace the administration's endeavor was "unfortunate" and that it denigrated the work of Mr. Conyers and Mr. Feingold, along with his own commitment on the issue. Mr. Ashcroft responded to skeptics by saying that "my own involvement with this over time, and the president's expressed displeasure with racial profiling over a substantial period of time, I think suggests a far different conclusion."

Mr. Shelton of the NAACP said Mr. Ashcroft's apparent zeal to carry out the president's directive is hopeful and, if it comes to fruition, will be an enormous stride for the new administration.

"We are very pleased with what we've heard so far," Mr. Shelton said. "And we hope we can move forward to get a credible collection of data."

His sentiments were echoed by others. Mr. Feingold, in a statement, said that "we are gaining momentum in the struggle to end racial profiling."

Mr. Conyers, in a similar statement, stressed that "it is gratifying to me that the attorney general has taken a step toward developing a federal policy to study racial profiling."

But, he added, partisanship has thwarted his efforts in the past. "For too many years, the Republican-controlled Congress has blocked my legislation on this matter," Mr. Conyers said.

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