Racial profiling bill languishes
PIERRE, S.D. ? The South Dakota Legislative committee on state and tribal relations failed to formally approve a bill that would require the collection of racial data by law enforcement officials.
The committee failed to make a quorum at its final meeting before the January session of the Legislature and therefore could not take action on a bill written by Sen. Ron Volesky that would require police officers to collect data on race when people are stopped in their vehicles. The purpose is to prove that racial profiling exists, is only a perception or is non-existent.
Since the bill was not approved by committee, Volesky, who introduced the bill in the last session, will reintroduce it when the Legislature reconvenes. Rep. Tom Van Norman, D-Eagle Butte, said he would introduce a similar bill in the House again this session.
"We heard a lot of testimony about the collection of data. Some said it would serve no useful purpose, that it would cost too much and we also heard from many who believe the data would be valuable for the facts.
"I heard that racial profiling is in the state. The governor said he wanted it proven, this bill would do that," Volesky said.
"This bill would say so much for reconciliation."
The bills failed in the last session because, "The attorney general said he was conducting a study and the governor's office was applying for a grant, yet nothing was done," Van Norman said.
Law enforcement officials at the hearing said some racial profiling probably existed, but that collecting data would not solve the problem. Hughes County Sheriff Mike Leidholt said that statewide model policies, officer training and video cameras in police cars would help.
Watertown Police Chief Terry Lohr, who said it would be na?ve to think racial profiling did not exist, said collection of race data may tend to add volatility to an incident and that the data collected may not carry any validity. He said police agencies are in the process of writing a uniform statewide policy that would deal with bias by police officers in all areas of police work.
Video cameras may go a long way toward proving an invalid stop by a police officer who has to prove probable cause. Many American Indian people who leave a reservation say they are somewhat certain they will be stopped and relieved when they arrive at their destination without being pulled over. Many of the reasons they are stopped is an object dangling from a rear view mirror, a dirty license plate, tail light out or other minor infractions.
All passengers in the car are then checked and a search usually is done because the officer is looking for outstanding warrants.
Marcella LeBeau, Eagle Butte, said racial profiling exists. Her grandson was stopped for driving too slow, she said. Isn't this harassment? she asked.
Shirley Marvin from Standing Rock said when people from the reservation drive to Mobridge, just across the Missouri River from the reservation, they express a sigh of relief when they make it without being stopped. They then spend their money and head for home through the obstacle course.
Webster Two Hawk, state commissioner of Tribal Government Relations, said he had been stopped by an officer for driving too slow and another time he was told he was speeding when, he claimed he set his cruise control at the speed limit. "I told them I would see them in court." He was not charged with the offense.
Faith Taken Alive, Standing Rock, said her 70-year-old mother was pulled over for having a dream catcher dangling from the rear view mirror. While she was with the officer, two other cars, with non-Indian drivers and things hanging from their mirror as well, were not stopped.
"We don't teach our children by saying, 'Oh, look there goes a Russian or a German.' We ask to be treated with respect," Taken Alive said.
Rep. Dick Hagen, D-Pine Ridge said he takes calls from people all the time with complaints about racial profiling. "If it doesn't exist these people are lying to me. I don't think they are lying."
But how will this practice stop?
Gene McCowan and Marge Two Hawk from the Pierre Indian Council met with Chief of Police Allen Aden and other members of the law enforcement agency this past spring to exchange ideas about racial profiling in that city.
McCowan and the group were allowed to go through records and determined that an inordinate number of American Indians had been stopped for very little reason. After the meeting and that discovery, the stops were reduced to half.
"I commend the chief for his efforts and what he has done. He listens and that's not always the case."
McCowan also said that officers ran checks on all passengers in a car driven by an American Indian, but not a non-Indian car because of possible outstanding warrants. "There are 900 outstanding warrants for American Indian people and 1,500 for non-Indians. Is that racial profiling?"
He said that if people can sit down and talk the situation can be improved.
Legislators on the committee said they were concerned with the lack of turnout by tribal members, especially elected tribal officials or their designees. Van Norman said he thought there was a communication gap and that notice of meetings were not getting to the tribes in a timely manner.
Committee Chairman Sen. J.E. "Jim" Putnam, R-Armour, said he was more upset at the fact that out of a 13 member committee, only five members were present at the afternoon session.
The unofficial opinion was that Volesky's bill and one submitted by Van Norman would have a better chance of passage this next session of the Legislature.
Putnam suggested that a repeal of the law that prohibits objects dangling from the mirror was in order.