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Racial profiling bill splits legislators

A House committee rejects a plan to form a task force to study traffic stops based on race and instead backs a plan pushed by sheriffs, angering black lawmakers.

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001


A House committee rejects a plan to form a task force to study traffic stops based on race and instead backs a plan pushed by sheriffs, angering black lawmakers.

TALLAHASSEE -- With some of Florida's sheriffs watching from the back of the room, a House committee on Tuesday ditched the creation of a high-profile task force that would look into racial profiling by police.

Instead, lawmakers endorsed the sheriffs' proposal to have a policy designed to prevent police statewide from making traffic stops based on of race.

"We don't need to feed the frenzy of the news media that would accompany the task force," said Rep. Jerry Melvin, R-Fort Walton Beach, who sponsored the amendment supported by the sheriffs.

Members of the Legislature's black caucus, led by Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, and Rep. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, objected heatedly.

"You are wrong," Meek angrily told Melvin as the meeting broke up.

"I'm not wrong. I'm right," Melvin angrily replied.

"This is out of character for these members not to want a task force," Meek told reporters. "Here we can't even agree on it. What do you suppose happens back home? Nothing."

The committee placed the racial profiling bill at the end of its meeting, leaving little time to hear testimony. Reps. Terry Fields, D-Jacksonville, and James Harper Jr., D-West Palm Beach, were among the legislators who did not get a chance to speak before the committee ran out of time.

Fields said he wanted to talk about the day he and Harper were stopped by deputies in Duval County in his truck with a legislative license tag.

"The officer followed us for 5 miles and pulls us over wanting to know who was driving a vehicle with legislative tags," Fields said. "It was insulting."

"It is time to address this issue," Fields added. "It was insulting to us for the chairman not to let us speak and gut the bill we brought."

Instead, the committee adopted an amendment that would require all of the state's law enforcement agencies to establish a policy against racial profiling by Jan. 1, 2002.

The policy would define traffic stop procedures, community education and awareness efforts and policies for handling public complaints.

Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger, president of the state sheriffs association, said a majority of Florida's counties have already established policies to stop racial profiling. He said nine counties are voluntarily collecting data on stops.

"We don't want to wait until next session. We want to take action now," Eslinger said. "We want to assure the public that professional traffic stops take place."

Meek, sponsor of a Senate bill on the subject, urged the committee to adopt language that would establish a task force to be chaired by Attorney General Bob Butterworth with representatives from law enforcement and the black community.

The task force would have hearings on the issue and recommend language for a bill to be heard by legislators in 2002.

"For everything of this magnitude in the past, we've put together a task force," said Meek. "The sheriffs want no one at the table outside of law enforcement. They would exclude people of color."

Butterworth, after waiting quietly for more than an hour for the committee to take up the bill, urged them to adopt Meek's version.

"This is a real issue, not only here, but nationally," Butterworth said. "We all know what happened in New Jersey where the governor and legislators were severely embarrassed."

Earlier this year, New Jersey agreed to pay $12.9-million to the four victims of a 1998 police shooting that caused a national furor over racial profiling.

Meek and other black legislators said they will continue working to pass the Senate version that would establish the task force.

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