LITTLE ROCK (AP) — Gov. Mike Beebe told a newly formed panel Thursday he wants objective data on whether racial profiling is a problem in Arkansas, months after signing a new seat belt law that civil rights advocates warned could lead to police harassment.
At the state Capitol, Beebe addressed the 13-member task force on racial profiling during its first meeting. Lawmakers earlier this year re-established the panel, which had expired in 2006.
"All we need is honesty, truth, objective data, clarity, good suggestions and good ideas," Beebe said. "Be simple and fair. That's what you're all about."
Beebe later told reporters that he didn't know whether there was a problem in the state with police targeting minorities and hoped that the task force would investigate the issue more fully.
The panel is required to study racial profiling and issue a final report to Beebe and the Legislature by the end of 2011. The task force is also required to organize an annual symposium on racial profiling.
Lawmakers earlier this year established the panel as they approved making seat belt violations a primary offense, meaning police could stop motorists seen not wearing a seat belt. Civil rights groups said they were worried the change, which took effect in June, would lead to racial profiling by police.
Initially, the state senator who had proposed the primary seat belt law called for collecting data on the race of motorists pulled over for the offense but that measure was later removed. Instead, lawmakers approved a new hot line that residents can use to report racial profiling by law enforcement.
Dale Charles, head of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP, called the hot line "window dressing" and said the state hasn't done enough to promote it. Charles, who is not on the racial profiling task force, said whether the panel is effective depends on its makeup and what steps it takes.
Since the toll-free number started in May, the attorney general's office has fielded 20 complaints of racial profiling. Chief Deputy Attorney General Justin Allen said the office is considering referring two or three of the complaints to the U.S. Department of Justice for further investigation.
"The clear intent of this legislation was for this to be a tracking system, to document complaints and provide a report back to the Legislature and the racial profiling task force to give them an idea of just how prevalent it may be so they can take whatever steps they can," Allen said.