Eliminating Racial Profiling in a Post 9/11 World

11 09 2007

Cross Posted at DMIblog.

“To those who pit Americans against immigrants, and citizens against non-citizens; to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists—for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies, and pause to America’s friends.”
John Ashcroft, Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing – November 6, 2001

As Americans continue to wrestle with the question of how to remain both safe and free, it should make every effort to abolish the practice of racial profiling. Not only does the racial profiling not work, it also violates the nation’s constitutionally guaranteed equal protection laws. But the End Racial Profiling Act of 2007 (ERPA), a bill co-sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) and Senator Feingold (D-WI) could help eliminate the practice.

Ineffective Enforcement Tool
According to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights “racial profiling occurs when law enforcement agents impermissibly use race, religion, ethnicity or national origin in deciding who to investigate.” Despite the mounting evidence of its ineffectiveness, however, racial profiling still persists today even though it does not help Americans against the “war on drugs” or the “war on terror.”

For example, a study of stop-and-frisk practices in New York City in 1998 and 1999, revealed that despite police officers disproportionately stopping young black men, the “hit rate” was somewhat higher for whites than for blacks or Latinos. Additionally, In 2000, Lamberth Consulting found that when the Customs Service eliminated racial profiling in how it investigated crimes, their “hit rates” improved by more than 300 percent.

Similarly, racial profiling also does not help Americans in the war on terror either, since it encourages law enforcement officials to cast an excessively broad net in deciding who to investigate. For example, in the wake of 9/11, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft authorized the secret arrests and indefinite detention of more than 1,200 non-citizens, mainly from the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa. In secret hearings, a high percentage of the detainees were charged with violating immigration law as a pretext for investigating them for potential links to terrorist organizations.

But this proved terribly ineffective and inefficient. In fact, a report found that out of the thousands arrested, only a handful of the so-called “special interest” detainees were actually charged with a terrorism-related crime. Granted, it is true that President Bush had the Justice Department ‘ban’ racial profiling in 2003. But the so-called ban does not apply to all federal, state and local law enforcement authorities. And since much of racial profiling is done on the local level it does not come close to eliminating the practice.

Plus, according the Justice Department own press release on the ban, exceptions can be made for purposes of “terrorist identification.” In effect this means if another attack were to occur, many Arab, South Asian, or Muslim men would not be sufficiently protected from another national dragnet. Moreover, on August 4th, 2007, the Transportation Security Administration, a federal agency, enacted a broad policy targeting passengers with turbans and other headwear that will likely lead to more extensive racial and religious profiling.

About the End Racial Profiling Act of 2007 (ERPA)
The End Racial Profiling Act would help eliminate racial profiling as a law enforcement tactic by banning the practice altogether. The bill would also provide state and local law enforcement federal funding for enacting policies consistent with the ban, and those harmed by racial profiling could report their complaints against law enforcement. In addition to federally mandating data collection related to investigations, the Attorney General would be required report to Congress on law enforcement’s compliance.

Racial and religious profiling leads to an ineffective and unfair method of investigating crimes because it focuses not on individual criminal behavior, but instead uses race, religion, and national origin as a proxy for suspicion. But, more importantly, it undermines the public’s faith in the justice system and diverts resources away from more effective crime-fighting tasks that improve public safety. If enacted, ERPA would not only improve American law enforcement investigations, but also honor the nation’s commitment to equal protection under the law.

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