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Time to Put an End to Racial Profiling in Georgia

Azadeh N. Shahshahani,
ACLU Foundation of Georgia
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March 23, 2010

(Originally posted on Huffington Post.)

Today, the ACLU of Georgia released a report about racial profiling in Gwinnett County, Georgia. Called The Persistence of Racial Profiling in Gwinnett: Time for Accountability, Transparency, and an End to 287(g) (PDF), the report discusses racial profiling in that county before and after the implementation of a 287(g) agreement, which allows local law enforcement to partner with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to enforce federal immigration law.

The report was released on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. This day commemorates the date in 1960 when more than 70 peaceful anti-apartheid demonstrators were murdered by government forces in Sharpeville, South Africa. The annual observance of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination celebrates the progress made over the years, but also provides a sobering reminder of the obstacles to racial justice worldwide.

In the United States, racial profiling remains a pervasive and serious problem. Racial profiling occurs when police target people for interrogations, searches and detentions based not on evidence of criminal activity, but on individuals’ perceived or actual race, ethnicity, nationality or religion.

Using race, ethnicity, or national origin as a proxy for criminal suspicion violates the constitutional requirement that police and other government officials must accord to all citizens the equal protection of the laws. Racial profiling also infringes on the Fourth Amendment guarantee that all people be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

As testimonies from community members documented in the new ACLU of Georgia report demonstrate, racial profiling by law enforcement was prevalent in Gwinnett County even prior to the implementation of the 287(g) agreement, and has continued after the program’s implementation.

Many Latino community members in Gwinnett have been stopped without reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

This is illustrated through the testimony of Juan, a 48-year-old maintenance technician who lives in Sugar Hill. Juan is a legal permanent resident and is entitled to live and work in the U.S. Over the past year, the police in Gwinnett have stopped Juan twice without a legal basis. The most recent stop occurred when Juan was leaving work, and an officer from the Gwinnett Sheriff’s Department asked him to pull his car aside. Although Juan asked him up to five times why he was pulled over, the officer never answered him. Rather, the officer demanded his driver’s license and screamed at him for asking questions. Juan showed the officer a valid license, and was eventually released without having been issued a citation. Juan still does not know why he was detained. He now avoids certain areas of Sugar Hill to avoid harassment by the police.

The concern with racial profiling is compounded in Gwinnett, as none of the Gwinnett law enforcement agencies that we interviewed, including the Gwinnett Sherriff’s Office, the Gwinnett County Police Department, and Norcross, Duluth, and Lilburn Police Departments, have comprehensive stop-and-search data collection policies; most only require documentation of data when there is an arrest, or upon the issuance of a citation.

Prompt action by state and county officials is necessary to combat racial profiling in Gwinnett and throughout Georgia (PDF). The passage of anti-racial profiling legislation that requires training, oversight, and collection and documentation of stop-and-search data would be an important first step.

Half of all U.S. states have enacted legislation that addresses racial profiling. Data collection has become commonplace. At least 14 U.S. states, including Missouri, Texas, North Carolina, and Utah, require collection of demographic data at traffic stops. Thousands of police departments across the country collect such data, some voluntarily.

Furthermore, the 287(g) agreement must end in Gwinnett.

Sheriff Butch Conway referred to November 16, 2009, the date when 287(g) officially began in Gwinnet as a “great day for Gwinnett citizens.”

But because of the excessive unchecked power given to the officers through 287(g), families have been torn apart, and communities have developed, through witnessing and hearing about illegal, abusive practices, a fear of going to the police.

Even citizens are scared to contact the police because they feel that officers are more focused on apprehending immigrants than stopping crime.

Upon observing the roadblocks and hearing accounts of the police targeting Latinos after the implementation of 287(g), Lucy, a U.S. citizen child of a U.S. citizen mother and a Honduran immigrant father, said: “I would rather live in Honduras, if this is how I will be treated here.”

No American should be made to feel as a second-class citizen. There is legislation now pending before the Georgia House of Representatives that would outlaw racial profiling and mandate data collection for all traffic or pedestrian stops in the state. It is time to pass House Bill 1009, and put an end to racial profiling in Georgia.

You can listen to a podcast interview with Azadeh about racial profiling and 287(g) agreements here:

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