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Effort launched to rein in DWB' stops 

An array of activists, lawmakers and ministers crowded into a small conference room at the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia's headquarters on Mitchell Street last Friday to issue a seemingly simple demand: end the practice of "racial profiling" by police. Simply put, profiling means stopping, searching or singling out individuals for investigation and prosecution solely on the basis of their race. The focus of the press conference involved the case of William Baker, a businessman preparing to fight a traffic ticket issued by the Johnson County Sheriff's Department. As he returned to his home in the central Georgia town of Wrightsville from Athens last May, says Baker, deputies got on his tail and followed him 18 miles through two counties. Hoping to avoid any legal difficulties, Baker set his cruise-control slightly below the posted speed limit and figured he was safe.

He wasn't.

As he approached the Treutlin County line, Baker says he was stopped, ordered from his car and -- as he and his sons waited on the roadside -- his car was searched.

"They violated every right I have," says Baker, a large, soft-spoken grandfather. "I kept explaining, 'You'll never find another person who respects the law more than me.' It didn't help."

When the deputies came up empty, they wrote Baker a ticket for following too close, and let him go. Efforts to reach Johnson County Sheriff Michael Morris for a comment have been unsuccessful.

"The night that happened I didn't sleep at all," says Baker, who is a candidate for the Treutlin County Commission. "I figured if it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody."

And that, says Jack Martin, Baker's ACLU attorney, is precisely the problem. In recent years, a growing awareness of profiling -- in cars, on the street, passing through airports -- has spurred some states to pass legislation specifically banning racial profiling. In Washington, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., has introduced congressional legislation aimed at ending the practice. Here in Georgia, an effort to pass an anti-profiling bill died in the waning hours of this year's session.

But the issue is increasingly contentious, and the group on hand for Friday's affair represented far more than the interests of William Baker. In addition to Martin and ACLU-Georgia legal director Gerry Weber, emissaries from organizations including the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the Southern Organizing Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Council, as well as state Sen. Vincent Fort (a co-sponsor of the failed profiling bill) and Rep. Tyrone Brooks, all pledged an alliance to help fight profiling.

"This is a national phenomenon," says the Rev. Fred Taylor of the SCLC. "It's not just Wrightsville, or Johnson County ... We've had reports from California, Mississippi, everywhere, of people being targeted because of the color of their skin."

But an immediate aim was to publicize an effort to document cases of alleged racial profiling by police. In addition to representing Baker at a hearing in Wrightsville this week, the ACLU also announced a new statewide Driving While Black or Brown hotline (1-877-653-DWBB) to take reports about alleged racial profiling, and to recruit individuals to help fight it.

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