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Montana bill would assess racial profiling status

HELENA-Mont. - Montana, like other states, may have a racial profiling problem, but nobody will know for sure unless law enforcement officers begin keeping more specific data on drivers they pull over for traffic stops.

That was the consensus Jan.19 among those testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on House Bill 189, sponsored by Rep. Bill Eggers, D-Crow Agency. The committee took no immediate action on HB 189.

Eggers' bill, patterned after one in Hawaii, would require officers to record: each routine traffic stop; race or ethnicity, age and gender of the individual stopped; nature of the violation; whether a search resulted, and if the stop or search resulted in an arrest or written citation.

It would require the Highway Patrol, Department of Justice, Board of Crime Control, and the Law Enforcement Academy to develop racial profiling training materials for police officers.

Nearly all witnesses supported the bill, saying they personally experienced or heard anecdotal evidence that Montana officers single out racial minorities when stopping motorists or pedestrians for questioning.

Sen. Gerald Pease, D-Lodge Grass, a BIA mechanic, said he has often heard - on the high band radio - police checks on 22 and 29 plates from the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations. "When I first noticed this I thought, 'This isn't right,'" he said.

Rep. Carol Juneau, D-Browning, recalled an unsuccessful effort in the 1999 session to put tribal emblems on license plates. "There was fear by one tribal leader that it would identify us."

As a former lobbyist for the private, non-profit Montana Human Rights Network, Rep. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, said she has no evidence racial profiling is a real problem in Montana. However, she said everyone inevitably grows up with certain biases, adding, "I don't think law enforcement is more racially biased than anyone else. In fact, they have the training to not let it interfere with their work."

Andrew Huff, a Helena attorney, American Civil Liberties Union board member and enrolled Chippewa-Cree, said existing Montana statistics suggest a troubling pattern. "Native Americans comprise only 10 percent of Montana's overall population, yet 17 percent of Montana's prison population is Native."

Huff said American Indians make up only 3 percent of Billings' population but represented nearly a quarter of all arrests there last year. Hispanics also are 3 percent of the population but accounted for 8 percent of all Billings arrests last year.

Rep. Norma Bixby, D-Lame Deer, noted that family members driving old "rez cars" often decline to drive into larger communities "because they feel targeted and are afraid they'll be picked up."

A young Northern Cheyenne, Sean White Wolf, said he always had a good opinion of police officers until being unfairly targeted. "I don't know how many of you have stood in the middle of nowhere, being patted down by some old man looking for drugs or a knife or something. Do I look like a drug pusher?"

Only Helena Chief of Police Troy McGee and Sgt. Ken Dove of the Billings Police Department and the Montana Police Protective Association testified against the measure, citing cost as the basis for their concerns.

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McGee equated HB 189 to an unfunded mandate on local government and said since the Helena Police Department is not computerized, it would have to hire someone to handle the bill's requirements. "I have no problem keeping statistics but having to do it will need a funding source.,"

Billings Police would have to add six clerical staff at $120,000 per year to comply with HB 189, Dove said, adding that staff already runs three to four weeks behind in data entry. With more than 40,000 stops per year, including issuing 22,000 citations and warnings, the added burden could be excessive, he said.

Eggers responded that the bill's fiscal note estimates it will cost $2,000, but he believes that will decline as police get more sophisticated equipment.

Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings, related the experiences of his adopted son, Kirk, who is three-quarters Crow and Blackfeet, with Billings-area law enforcement officers.

"I can tell you in Billings he's been discriminated against because he's an Indian." He said his son was stopped more than once by the Highway Patrol for speeding, pulled out of the car, slammed up against it and handcuffed.

"The first thing they'd say is, 'We think you fit the description of a suspect.' And he was not driving a rez car but a $35,000 Volvo."

When his son was working as a meter reader and had to walk down alleys, residents called the police and two or three officers would descend on his son and handcuff him without even checking his story, Peterson said.

"My son said, 'I don't want to live here anymore because I have these problems.'"

Things didn't get any better until Peterson, a Billings attorney, called the police and complained about his son's treatment.

Col. Bert Obert of the Montana Highway Patrol said the patrol issues about 90,000 tickets each year and 125,000 warnings. He said new ticket forms were about to printed when he heard about Eggers' proposed bill and put the order on hold.

Noting that a Silver Bow County incident a year and a half ago evolved into a racial profiling accusation, Obert said it may be more expensive to the state if the information is not collected.

That incident involved two Hispanic men from Washington state stopped at 3 a.m. for driving slowly and erratically on the Interstate. Even though the officer came up from behind the vehicle and initially had no idea who was inside, "It became a big issue in court that these gentlemen were Hispanic."

Eggers, a former law enforcement officer, said such events are another incentive to pass HB 189. "One lawsuit by a plaintiff's attorney or the ACLU will cost more than this bill 10 times over."