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Racial profiling at issue in new seat belt bill

Richard Feloni | 7/12/2011, 11:04 p.m.

Would allowing a police officer to stop a driver for not wearing a seat belt lead to more racial profiling in Massachusetts? The Boston branch NAACP thinks so.

A primary seat belt bill now under consideration by the state Legislature aims to elevate the state’s current law from making failure to wear a seat belt a secondary offense to one that could warrant being stopped by an officer.

 It is commonly referred to as “Natalie’s Bill,” in memory of Natalie DeLeon, a 21-year-old woman who died in a car accident in 2006. She was not wearing her seat belt.

The Boston branch NAACP believes stronger enforcement of existing laws is premature. “We cannot institute yet another basis to stop motor vehicles until this problem of racial profiling is addressed first,” says the organization’s Legal Redress Director Stephanie Soriano-Mills in a recent statement expressing their opposition to the bill.

Rep. Byron Rushing, D-Boston (South End), added that when the law gives officers more chances to stop someone, “you’re also raising the possibility — not the fact, but the possibility — for police to use that as an opportunity for racial profiling.”

Both Rushing and the NAACP said they support efforts to increase seat belt awareness and even admit that they may reconsider their position on primary enforcement in the future, but only after they are comfortable that racial profiling has been eliminated throughout the state.

The NAACP backs Reps. Sonia Chang-Diaz, Benjamin Swan and Rushing’s “Act to Improve the Collection and Analysis of Data Relative to Traffic Stops” as a means to achieve this goal.

A summary of the bill states that its purpose “is to identify race and ethnic bias where it exists on the part of police conducting traffic stops, through the collection, review and monitoring of all traffic stop data, and to use the analysis of this information to systematically eliminate such bias in the Commonwealth.”

Drivers would also be able to appeal a stop they believe is the result of racial discrimination.

Belts Ensure a Safer Tomorrow (BEST), an activist group dedicated to raising support for a primary seat belt law in Massachusetts, does not see how such a law would lead to an increase in discrimination. They also believe that racial profiling needs to end, but that it should not be an impediment to enforcing seat belt use. In fact, they believe minorities can only benefit if the law is passed.

“If you look at minority communities in Mass., the usage rate amongst Hispanics is about 64 percent and [amongst] African Americans about 72 percent,” said Mary Maguire, co-chair of BEST. “Hispanics and African Americans really have the most to gain in terms of numbers from primary enforcement, because their numbers will increase 10 percent or perhaps even higher.”

According to BEST, the state’s general usage rate is 75 percent, 10 points behind the national average. 32 states and the District of Columbia have passed primary seat belt laws.

BEST says that studies from California, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Michigan reached the conclusions that “primary enforcement reduces racial disparities in seat belt use and related injuries, and does NOT change race-based ticketing.”

It should also be noted that the National Urban League, whose mission is to “provide economic empowerment, educational opportunities and the guarantee of civil rights for African Americans,” released a public statement in 2009 proclaiming their support for primary seat belt laws throughout the country.

“While police harassment is a possible unintended consequence of the law, data we have examined from a number of states reveals no reported racial complaints,” the Urban League stated.

Regardless, the Boston branch NAACP, Chang, Rushing and Swan will continue to voice their opposition to Natalie’s Bill until the state officially makes racial profiling illegal and creates an infrastructure to end it.

Rushing says that police have criticized his method of gathering statistics for use in racial profiling studies. For example, some police departments do not want to have traffic stops be measured against the minority populations of their city or town, since drivers who are stopped are not necessarily citizens of that community.

Rushing says he is willing to compromise on a new standard but says police chiefs’ lobbying organizations “have been reluctant to engage in those kinds of conversations.”