At this point, most know the story of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old who died from a fatal gunshot wound on Feb. 26 in Sanford, Fla. The tragic story has garnered national attention, bringing to light valuable questions about the role of race and stereotypes in law enforcement practices. More than a month later, the controversy continues to brew.
While the facts of the case are still disputed, one thing is certain: police have a duty to keep the community safe and follow basic protocol. The ACLU has called on the Department of Justice and other authorities to conduct a full, fair, and thorough investigation into the actions of the Sanford Police Department. On March 27, Dennis Parker, the director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project, testified about the important oversight role of the federal government when concerns of local police misconduct arise. The testimony also highlighted the Sanford Police Department’s history of problematic responses to incidents involving African-Americans.
It is unclear whether race played a role in the police response, but we have a duty to ensure that it does not in the future. The ACLU has been a driving force behind the End Racial Profiling Act, legislation sponsored by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. John Conyers, (D-Mich.) which would, among other things, provide training to help police avoid responses based on stereotypes and unreliable assumptions about minorities. The ACLU has also asked for full funding for the DOJ Civil Rights Division to conduct investigations into civil rights violations by law enforcement across the nation and urged Congress to defund and end immigration enforcement initiatives, including the 287(g) and Secure Communities programs, which foster racial profiling of Latinos and other people of color.
In addition, the ACLU is urging the Obama administration to strengthen the Department of Justice Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies to address profiling by religion and national origin, close loopholes for the border and national security, and make the guidance enforceable.
Today, to address many of these much-needed reforms, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) announced a hearing on racial profiling in America, to be held on April 17. This is the first Senate hearing on profiling in over a decade, since before 9/11.
The hearing will explore how profiling harms law enforcement and focus on the many different faces of racial profiling, including historic racism against African-Americans in community and drug enforcement, the post-9/11 intelligence gathering and racial mapping particularly of Arab Muslims and South Asians and the profiling of Latinos, Asians and other people of color in the context of immigration and border enforcement. The hearing is also timely in light of the April 25 U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments in Arizona v. U.S., the case that will examine the constitutionality of Arizona’s anti-immigrant, racial profiling law.
In examining recent national events — whether it’s the police investigation in the Martin case or the slew of state anti-immigrant, racial profiling laws — there is a reignited charge to end racial profiling in America. Not only is the practice ineffective, it also allows law enforcement to use stereotypes when making critical decisions about people’s freedoms. Law enforcement officers — whether they are local police, Transportation Security Administration officials or border patrol agents — must base their decisions on facts. Otherwise, Americans’ rights and liberties are unnecessarily discarded, while individuals and communities are left to deal with the detrimental consequences.
It’s time we ask, do we want our law enforcement to use stereotypes, or do we want them to do proper and effective police work?