Company Hopes to Make Small Dent in Big Problem

Company Hopes to Make Small Dent in Big Problem

Bob Michels

By Jennifer Freer, Staff Writer

A small software company has developed a new system that could help solve a much larger social problem ? racial profiling.

Mobile Commerce and Computing created a wireless system called Traffic Stop for Maryland's Montgomery County Police Department to help collect data, such as race, gender and age of motorists, on handheld computers used by police during traffic stops.

The Montgomery County Police Department bought 1,200 Microsoft Pocket PCs for about $400,000 from MC2 after a three-year investigation by the Justice Department into allegations that the police department was using excessive force and treating African Americans unfairly. The investigation was sparked by complaints from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The investigation resulted in a voluntary agreement in January among Justice, the NAACP and Montgomery County Police to improve systems in the department, such as how complaints are filed, how traffic stop data is collected and how internal affairs investigates those complaints, said Capt. Bill O'Toole, director of media services with Montgomery County Police.

"This software is a tool to allow officers to collect information quicker and easier," said Bob Michels, founder and chief operating officer of MC2, Reston, Va. "They will be able to look at data and see trends and find out if there is a racial profiling problem."

The handheld device also can be used to access calendar events, e-mail, voice mail, the Internet and maps of the county, he said.

Once the data is compiled, the Institute of Law and Justice, an independent consulting firm in Alexandria, Va., will conduct a three-month analysis to see whether Montgomery County police are stopping a high proportion of minorities. Racial profiling refers to a situation in which a police officer conducts a traffic stop based on the driver's race.

"The goal is to open a window to the community and let them see what we do and how we police," O'Toole said. "Once we have more accurate numbers and analysis of what those numbers mean, everyone will have an idea what we are doing. Our hope is that it will show we are not engaging in racial profiling."

While no one regards Traffic Stop as the complete solution to the problem of racial profiling, both the NAACP and Justice Department have endorsed Traffic Stop as a starting point in eliminating the problem.

"We hope this effort and technology will bring most of the community in sync as to what is happening on the streets and improve community relations," said Linda Plummer, president of the Montgomery County Branch of the NAACP.

All of this is a part of the agreement with the Justice Department and Montgomery County police, Plummer said. "We're glad to see the police implementing the terms of contract, and we will continue to monitor it," she said.

MC2's Michels did not set out to solve the problem of racial profiling. "I'm a software developer, not a politician," he said.

But since MC2 began working with Montgomery County, the company has received calls from more than 30 other police departments interested in its Traffic Stop technology and is negotiating additional deals, Michels said.

Overall, he said he thinks his small company, which was founded in May and has only 15 employees, has created a niche market potentially worth $500 million for itself with Traffic Stop. There are more than 200,000 police officers in the United States, and more than 17,000 police jurisdictions that could tap into Traffic Stop as a tool to monitor racial profiling, he said.

MC2 created a Public Safety Division to oversee development of the Traffic Stop technology, and hopes the technology can help combat racial profiling, Michels said. But he said the company sees the technology more as a tool to make a police officer's job easier, Michels said.

MC2's solution allows officers to collect and enter information into a database to identify trends and look into what is happening in a jurisdiction, Michels said.

At every traffic stop, an officer taps a button on the computer and takes only three minutes to fill out information. Before Traffic Stop, Montgomery County police recorded information on 3-by-5 cards, and some were writing information on the bottom of other forms, which often resulted in collecting incorrect data, Michels said.

MC2 is working on a system to allow tickets to be issued electronically, but now the officer still has to write out a ticket, Michels said.

Maryland isn't the only state dealing with the issue of racial profiling. Connecticut, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Washington state passed laws requiring police departments to collect data on motorists in traffic stops. The police are not required to compile traffic-stop information in every state, but only in states that have passed laws or in areas that have reached agreements with the Justice Department after investigations looking into racial profiling.

President Clinton also signed an executive order in June 1999 requiring federal law enforcement agencies to gather motorist information on ethnicity, gender and race.

And the Traffic Stops Statistics Study Act, requiring the Justice Department to conduct a nationwide study of stops for traffic violations by law enforcement officers, was approved March 1 by the House Judiciary Committee.

"The limited data available indicates that the problem of racial profiling in traffic stops is serious," said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who introduced the legislation.

A recent study by the Orlando Sentinel found that 70 percent of the persons stopped on Interstate 95 in Florida were African American, even though they make up less than 10 percent of the driver population.

A court-ordered study in Maryland found that more than 70 percent of drivers stopped on I-95 were African American, who only make up 17.5 percent of Maryland drivers, Conyers said.

Deborah Jeon, managing attorney for the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union, is skeptical whether Traffic Stop will reduce racial profiling by the police.

"The statistics are what they are, and the technology can't explain that away. It's a problem with the system, with the police force, not with the technology," she said.

The real problem is a failure of leadership on the police force, setting good examples and educating officers on the issue of racial profiling, Jeon said. Regarding the use of technology, she said video cameras in police cars could help create a better record of what is happening.

Wayne Schmidt, executive director of the Americans for Effective Law Enforcement Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides educational, legal and professional services and assistance to the law enforcement community, Park Ridge, Ill., also said he is a fan of the dashboard video camera for preserving the whole police process on video.

While the Traffic Stop technology could compliment video cameras and help provide a better record of police activities, the police still must act upon the data that is collected.

"Racial profiling is a decision that is made in the mind and heart of individual police officers, and no piece of technology is going to combat those kinds of decisions," O'Toole said. "I think if there is a perception that racial profiling occurs in America, specifically in the Montgomery County Police Department, it is an issue we need to deal with."

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