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Tennessee doesn't track the races of people stopped by police officers or the racial makeup of its nearly 600 law enforcement agencies.

As a result, state and local officials don't have answers for some of the tough questions being asked across the country after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.: whether their police departments unfairly target black, Hispanics or other minority groups; whether their police departments reflect the racial makeup of their communities.

But statistics that could shed light on those questions have only been recorded intermittently in Tennessee. When they were, in state studies in 2002 and 2007, they showed racial disparities in how some minority groups were treated by police.

"There is definitely a problem in this state. There's a need to collect data," said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. "The collection of data would be the first step in determining the extent and prevalence of profiling going on in our state."

Some states, like Missouri, collect profiling data and make it readily available to the public. Florida makes officer demographic data easily available online as well.

As the unrest in Ferguson shows sign of abating, communities are taking a hard look at their own police forces. To that end, Bishop Joseph Walker, senior pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, called a town meeting for Thursday evening with (Nashville) Metro police. His church is one of the oldest and largest African-American churches in the city.

Police Chief Steve Anderson was expected to attend, along with commanders of each of the department's precincts.

"A lot of folks need to feel safe around police, need to feel that police are not profiling them and feel that we're all in this together," Walker said. "What Ferguson has done is it's gotten a lot of folks nervous and anxious and it's ignited passions."

Racial profiling falls by the wayside

While the U.S. banned racial profiling by federal law enforcement agents in 2003, Tennessee has made only modest efforts in the past.

The Tennessee Legislature in 2000 ordered a study of profiling in the state. The resulting 2002 report looked at all traffic stops by police at 44 police agencies in the year 2001. It found that black and Hispanic drivers were stopped at a rate greater than the racial makeup of the communities they lived in and were far more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than other races.

In 2005, the legislature ordered another report, focusing on the Tennessee Highway Patrol. The 2007 report looked at all THP traffic stops in 2006. It found troopers stopped white and black drivers at rates similar to the population. But it also concluded that Hispanic drivers were stopped and arrested at higher rates than the overall population.

The state also passed the "Racial Profiling Prevention Act" in 2008. But far from being a comprehensive set of guidelines mandating how police treat citizens, the law simply "strongly encouraged" police departments "to adopt a written policy that prohibits racial profiling" by 2010.

The law has since expired and hasn't been touched, leaving it to local police departments like Nashville, which adopted its own policy against racial profiling.

Nothing was done with the 2002 recommendation that if the state wanted to continue studying the issue, "the Department of Safety should develop a licensed driver database that contains uniformly collected and geographically referenced data."

No such database was ever created.

"The Tennessee General Assembly did not require the department to proceed, nor was there any funding provided to develop this database," said Dalya Qualls, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

Local improvement seen

That's not to say there hasn't been progress on a local level. Bishop Walker said Nashville in particular has made good strides to address concerns in minority communities.

"I think it has, but I think there's a lot of work to do," he said.

Weinberg, with the ACLU, said Anderson's leadership has improved race relations in Nashville, but cautioned that there is still a perception in minority communities that they are being profiled.

"There is a perception that it's happening, even while we have a police department that is sensitive and concerned and has leadership at the top that is talking to the community," she said.

Even many involved with Nashville's Hispanic community, who have long complained that the now-defunct 287(g) jail program led to racial profiling, say the city is improving. That program, which started in 2007 but has been discontinued, allowed Davidson County jail employees to begin the deportation process for those they suspected of being in the United States illegally. It has since been replaced by Secure Communities, a program that removed that power from local jails and placed it with federal immigration authorities.

"I cannot emphasize enough the improvement that has been made under Chief Anderson. It's like night and day," said Elliott Ozment, an immigration attorney who has been a vocal critic of 287(g). "It was running rampant when 287(g) was first implemented. The Metro P.D. was pulling people over for the slightest provocation. Fishing while Hispanic, windows tinted excessively. One tail light out. Just a multitude of things like that."

Ozment said his office still sees evidence of occasional profiling, but added that he thinks the city is moving in the right direction.

"Thank God that Nashville, Tenn., does not have the same problem that Ferguson, Mo., has," he said. "I think we have a very healthy community right now."

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