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Stop Discrimination: House Judiciary Subcommittee Takes Up Racial Profiling

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November 4, 2011

“To Protect and Serve” is the longstanding motto of many American police departments. But it fails to ring true when a law enforcement officer subjects a citizen to humiliating interrogation, search and detention — simply because of how the person looks.

When police engage in racial profiling, they are not only violating the Constitution, they are also hindering their ability to keep communities safe.

Today, the House Judiciary Subcommittee took a look at why racial profiling is not only discriminatory, but also bad for policing efforts.

The ACLU submitted a statement to the Judiciary Subcommittee, highlighting why Congress should end racial profiling by passing the End Racial Profiling Act. In recent years, profiling has increased from historic racism against African-Americans in community and drug enforcement to also include the post-9/11 intelligence gathering and racial mapping particularly of Arab Muslims and South Asians, as well as the profiling of Latinos, Asians and other people of color in the context of immigration and border enforcement.

In the statement, the ACLU described the many forms of profiling that all lead to discrimination.

The statement told the story of Harvard-educated lawyer Robert Wilkins and his family, who were stopped and harassed by police as they returned home to Washington, D.C., from a funeral in Chicago.

The trooper told Wilkins’ cousin, the driver of the car, that he had “paced him” driving 60 miles-per-hour in 40 miles-per-hour zone. The officer then proceeded to tell the family he must search the car for drugs and returned with a dog. No drugs were found, no citation was issued. The stop and search were made simply because Wilkins and his family were African-American.

The ACLU also described how after Sept. 11, the Department of Justice began conducting “voluntary” interviews of Middle Eastern and Muslim men living in America. As the federal agency “sought to protect” Americans from future terrorist attacks, they singled out these men simply because of their race and ethnicity.

That was just the beginning. Now, the FBI has gone so far as to track falafel sales in San Francisco in attempt to find Iranian terrorists – it’s part of these “mapping” programs that use race and ethnic demographic information to identify concentrated ethnic communities and identify potential threats based on generalized stereotypes.

Then finally, in highlighting profiling in the immigration context, the statement explained that under the Obama administration’s immigration enforcement programs, many others are also being targeted by law enforcement for deportation.

One Sunday morning, in Inwood, W.V., police stopped three vehicles leaving a popular Latin club, claiming the cars failed to stop at a stop sign, among other minor traffic infractions. While none of the drivers — all Hispanic — received traffic citations, the eight people traveling in the cars were arrested. This was the first step toward deportation proceedings that are now pending in six of the case – all because in 2009, the Secure Communities program went into effect in West Virginia, allowing local police to run fingerprints of those arrested through ICE’s immigration database, even if they are never convicted of a crime.

As addressed during ACLU’s recent Three Faces of Racial Profiling policy discussion, it’s time for this type of discrimination to stop.

Passing ERPA, which was introduced in the U.S. Senate on Oct. 6, would prevent law enforcement from subjecting a person to heightened scrutiny based on race, ethnicity, religion or national origin, except when there is trustworthy information, relevant to the locality and timeframe, that links a person of a particular race, ethnicity, national origin or religion to an identified criminal incident or scheme.

In addition to defining and explicitly prohibiting racial profiling, ERPA will mandate racial profiling training and data collection, authorize grants for the development and implementation of best policing practices and require periodic reports from the attorney general on any continuing discriminatory practices.

ERPA is expected to be introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives soon.

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