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An expert in criminal justice told members of about 15 law enforcement agencies in Erie and Niagara counties Tuesday that racial profiling should not be ignored.

"I think racial profiling is an issue of national concern," said Michael R. Smith, assistant professor of criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University and former deputy sheriff and police officer. "Agencies need to be addressing it proactively."

About 35 police executives and command staff personnel, including officers from the Buffalo Police Department, Erie County Sheriff's Office and Cheektowaga police, listened to Smith in Hirsch's Restaurant in Clarence.

Racial profiling -- the police practice of improperly targeting people for special attention because of their race -- has raised concerns in Western New York. Cheektowaga Police Chief Bruce D. Chamberlin traveled to Washington, D.C., to endorse an anti-profiling bill earlier this month, and the U.S. Justice Department agreed in May to send specialists in easing racial tensions to Cheektowaga.

Smith talked about how to avoid complaints of racial profiling and the impact of court decisions about racial profiling. Officers broke into small groups to discuss topics that included how to write anti-profiling policies.

The relatively few studies about racial profiling has resulted in a knowledge gap, Smith said, adding, "I'd like to see more agencies collect data and conduct analyses."

Erie County Sheriff Patrick M. Gallivan, whose office sponsored the seminar, said he realized the issue was important from his work in the National Sheriff's Association.

"It's obvious that this is an issue garnering nationwide attention and attention in Erie County," Gallivan said.

"Not to state that any individual agency does or does not have a problem with racial profiling, but it has been elevated to a national stage. It's a very real issue police executives must deal with."

Gallivan said Joseph Wolfinger, executive director of the Major Counties Sheriffs Association and former special agent in charge of the Buffalo FBI office, brought Smith to his attention.

"He's recognized as one of the few people in the country who has gathered a lot of data," Gallivan said of Smith. "I think he has a good understanding of the research gathered to date and related court cases."

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