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American Muslim

Daily Herald Chicago – January 2, 2003

Police now record 'race' of drivers

By Dave Orrick

Illinois' first statewide effort to deal with perceived racial profiling began Thursday(January 1st), and the outlook for the program is as unknown as for the coming year itself. Some groups, though, are already concerned the well-intentioned measure won't be effective.

Initially resisted by law enforcement and praised by civil rights groups, the new law requires police officers to record the race of the driver of every vehicle they stop. The information will be analyzed later in an attempt to see if police are "profiling" - disproportionately pulling over people on the basis of their appearance.

The new law, signed this summer by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, calls for officers to cite their "perception" of the "race" of the driver, who won't be told which of five choices selected, according to training manuals instructing police how to follow the law.

Previously, most police paperwork mentioned race only if it was relevant to an incident or might help identify a witness or suspect. "This is all new for all of us," said Elgin police Lt. Tom O'Herron. "The advice they gave us during our training was: 'Go out and do your jobs. If you have nothing to worry about, you have nothing to worry about.' "

Officers aren't supposed to ask drivers their race, just make their best guess. The logic is that profiling is in the eye of the profiler, and the true race of the driver isn't as important as what the officer initially thought.

But officers will have only these categories to choose from, as defined by state lawmakers: Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander and Native American/Alaskan Native.

What if the driver is Arab or of Middle Eastern descent - a group that has complained of being singled out for discrimination since Sept. 11, 2001?

"Our understanding is that we would put anyone of Middle Eastern descent in as Caucasian," said Schaumburg Lt. Dennis Carrol. "We had that question, too."

"You can't tell whether Arab-Americans are being profiled if we're counted with whites," said Shalabi, president of the Chicago-based Arab American Bar Association. "Ideally, there should be another box ... to be more specific."

Shalabi said he wasn't surprised to see the lack of a category for people like him, since Arabs have traditionally been categorized as white in America. But in a time when many Arab-Americans feel they're being unfairly targeted as potential terrorists, he wants the new law to reflect the new era.

Moreover, he said, many non-Arab, non-Middle Eastern Muslims feel they are being profiled for their religion, which is sometimes assumed on the basis of non-racial features, such as head scarves on women or beards on men.

"It will be interesting to see how officers confuse them," Shalabi said. "Non-Arabic Muslims could be any race. If you're Indian, for example, you'll be classified as Asian. That makes things even more confusing. "The idea (behind the law) is good, but when it comes to our community, we're not going to get a good enough idea of what the officers' perceptions are. We're not going to get a truthful account."

Allegations of Hispanic profiling in 2000 prompted the Mount Prospect police department to begin a program similar to the statewide one. Racial profiling accusations also dogged Highland Park police, who are under a court-approved obligation to record races of drivers they pull over. The city of Naperville began a similar program on its own.