No one denies – at least openly – that racial profiling is bad practice. The question at hand, and one raised during a Senate Committee hearing on civil and human rights earlier this week, is how to end it.
On Tuesday, April 17, the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights listened to testimony from legislators, legal experts, law enforcement officials, and advocates expressing their views on the state of racial profiling in America.
The issue has taken on a heightened sense of urgency in the wake of the shooting death of 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida. The shooter, George Zimmerman – who is of Jewish and Hispanic descent – is now on trial for Martin’s death.
Members of the committee debated the merits of The End Racial Profiling Act of 2011 – which supporters say would help strengthen ties between minority communities and law enforcement agencies that are supposed to serve them.
Opponents describe the bill, first introduced last October by Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), as an insult to police officers everywhere.
Captain Frank Gale, with the Denver Sheriff’s office, says the bill would only “make matters worse.” The language, he argues, is “too broad” and calls for policies that are “in real life not practical.”
Gale, who is the National Second Vice President with the Fraternal Order of Police, also took aim at the bill’s financial consequences. The legislation, he says, “threatens to penalize local and state law enforcement agencies” by withholding federal funding unless these agencies comply with the requirements of the bill.
Those requirements include providing training to all officers on racial profiling issues, collecting racial and other sociological data in accordance with federal regulation, and establishing an independent audit program to ensure appropriate response to allegations of racial profiling.
“How can we fight the battle if we also propose to deny these funds to agencies that need them,” asked Gale, “because they can’t afford training or personnel to document allegations of racial profiling issues?”
Roger Clegg, President and General Counsel for the conservative think-tank Center for Equal Opportunity, echoes Gale’s concerns.
Claiming that the frequency of racial profiling is often “exaggerated,” he urged committee members to exercise caution when analyzing related date. His later remarks caused a stir.
“I am opposed to profiling, particularly to profiling in the traditional law enforcement context where frequently it is African Americans who are the victims of that profiling,” he said. “Nonetheless, I think we have to recognize that it’s going to be tempting for the police and individuals to profile so long as a disproportionate amount of street crime is committed by African Americans.”
Legal analysts and supporters of the bill argue Clegg’s comment misses the point, which revolves not around street crime but around the need to build community trust.
“The issue is how we deploy our street officers in ways that are effective, fair, and carry out the most important ideals of our society,” said University of Pittsburg Professor David Harris.
Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Miami) spoke passionately about the treatment of minority youth, especially African American males, at the hands of law enforcement, referencing the Trayvon Martin case as a “textbook example of racial profiling.”
“When my son learned how to drive, I bought him a cell phone because I knew he would be profiled… and he was,” she said.
In Illinois, said U.S. Senator and Subcommittee member Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), “Hispanic motorists are two to four times more likely to be searched and African Americans are two to three more times as likely to be subject to consent searches than white motorists.”
Pointing out that white motorists were “89 percent more likely than Hispanic motorists and 26 percent more likely than African American motorists to have contraband in their vehicles,” the statistics around incidents of racial profiling “made no sense from a law enforcement” point of view, he added.
The debate has reignited a level of intensity around the topic of racial profiling that has not been seen since the days and months following the 9/11 terror attacks, when Muslim Americans across the country complained of being targeted for their religious and ethnic backgrounds.
Many who testified at this week’s hearing argued that ensuring a strong relationship between Muslims and Law enforcement is critical, especially in the continued fight against homegrown terror. Most recently, an Associated Press series documented the New York Police Department’s spying on the Muslim community.
Citing the scandal, Congresswoman Judy Chu (D,CA-32) reminded fellow lawmakers that “the only thing they were guilty of was practicing Islam.”
Sen. Cardin ended the hearing by recognizing the differing viewpoints and stressing that at its core, the issue is one of “accountability.”
“We serve the public,” he said, and whether elected or appointed, “accountability has to be part of that service.”
The debate around the bill, meanwhile, is expected to continue.
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