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Reno Urges Police to Examine Use of ‘Racial Profile’ Searches

By Robert L. Jackson

Attorney General Janet Reno made an impassioned plea Thursday for local police and other law enforcement officials to deal with citizen complaints about searches based on “racial profiles.”

“We can’t duck this issue,” Reno said, adding that the Justice Department has had “a number of investigations under way” of specific cases, trying to determine if police are violating individual rights by targeting people based on their race.

While recognizing organized police opposition to such inquiries, Reno said “hard facts” are needed to determine if the practice is widespread. “And let’s -- where we see the problem -- do something about it,” she said.

A proposal to require a national study of why police stop and search motorists died in Congress last year but will be taken up again.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Customs Service said it was establishing an independent review panel to evaluate complaints of racial bias from airline passengers who have been strip-searched by inspectors looking for smuggled drugs.

“If a bias exists, whether perceived or real, it is paramount that we find its cause and eliminate it,” Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said in announcing the panel, which will report its findings in three months.

The agency is facing at least a dozen lawsuits over body searches, including a class-action complaint by 100 black women in Chicago who claim they were singled out because of their race and gender.

Reno, declining comment on Customs Service practices, told her weekly news briefing that some individual police departments are trying to make officers more sensitive to minority concerns through training and other techniques.

On a recent visit to San Diego, she said, she learned that motorcycle officers who stop motorists for traffic infractions are encoding racial data on hand-held computers as part of a community study.