At ACLU Membership Conference, Legal, Law Enforcement Experts See "War on Drugs" Tactic Becoming Tool in War on Terror

July 7, 2004 12:00 am

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SAN FRANCISCO – At a plenary luncheon at the ACLU’s Annual Membership Conference today, legal and law enforcement experts will examine how the government’s use of racial profiling in the war on drugs has become a key tool in the war on terror – with the result that even more innocent people are now being treated as suspects based on the color of their skin rather than actual suspicion.

“”Prior to 9/11, President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft promised to change law enforcement’s reliance on racial profiling,”” said panel moderator Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office. “”Well, they did make some changes – the government is now using racial profiling against Muslim and Arab immigrants in the war on terror, and despite the administration’s promises, they are continuing to use it against blacks and Latinos in the war on drugs. The result is that an even greater number of innocent people are being considered suspects simply because of their race or ethnicity, and no one is any safer because of it.””

Racial profiling is the practice of using race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion as the primary factor in deciding whom to subject to law enforcement investigations. Although the Department of Justice recently issued guidelines on the use of race in law enforcement, its directive had a huge “”national security”” exception and lacked any enforcement mechanism, Murphy noted.

Participants in today’s panel are:

  • Former Montgomery County, Maryland Police Chief Charles Moose, one of America’s best-known law enforcement leaders who successfully pursued the Beltway snipers. The ACLU Foundation recently retained the services of Chief Moose to assist in public education efforts related to racial profiling, a practice he opposes as both ineffective and unconstitutional.
  • Civil rights attorney Banafsheh Akhlaghi, a first-generation Iranian immigrant who left a position teaching constitutional law after 9/11 in order to become a legal advocate for the rights of Arabs, Muslims and South Asians.
  • Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Professor of Law at UCLA and Columbia School of Law. Prof. Crenshaw teaches courses in race studies, civil rights and constitutional law, and is a founder and leader of a movement called Critical Race Theory, which asserts that subjectivity and the biases of privilege inevitably influence systems of law.
  • Elliott Wolf, a graduate of Montgomery Blair High School in Montgomery, Maryland and a 2004 ACLU Youth Activist Scholarship winner. As an intern at the ACLU of Maryland, Wolf devised a system for collecting and analyzing data to measure the use of racial profiling by the Maryland State Police. His analysis will be used by the ACLU in a lawsuit challenging the use of racial profiling. Wolf will attend Duke University this fall.

The panelists will discuss what the elements of profiling are, how entrenched it has become as a tool of law enforcement, and possible resolutions to end the use of this widely discredited and unconstitutional tactic. A focus of the panel will be the government’s use of racial profiling in the war on terror, despite its well-documented failures in the so-called war on drugs.

Department of Justice reports have found that black and other minority motorists continue to be stopped at a rate far out of proportion to their presence in the overall population or on the highways. While the number of states collecting profiling data has increased, many states have been slow to enact effective legislation to outlaw the practice of racial profiling. Only nine states have enacted laws that prohibit racial profiling and the majority of police departments do not collect information on profiling.

The ACLU has long called for federal intervention to address this problem, and supports passage of the bipartisan “”End Racial Profiling Act of 2004,”” recently introduced by Sens. Russ Feingold (D-WI), Jon Corzine (D-NJ) and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI). The bill defines racial profiling, makes it illegal and requires data collection on all law enforcement encounters. It also provides individuals harmed by racial profiling with the power to stop law enforcement agencies from continuing to profile based on race, religion or national origin.

But the problem of profiling now reaches beyond the war on drugs, and combating it has become an even greater challenge, the ACLU said. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have initiated sweeping programs that amount to racial profiling on a federal scale. There have been countless instances of Arab and Muslim Americans from all parts of the country being suspected and detained on the basis of their ethnicity and religious beliefs.

A June 2003 report by the Justice Department’s own internal affairs unit found a systematic pattern of rights violations in the detention of hundreds of predominantly Arab, Muslim and South Asian men held in the months after the 9/11 attacks. According to the report, detainees were held in secret, denied access to counsel and incarcerated for months at a time, even after officials had solid evidence that the men had no connection to the attacks. By many accounts, the men rounded-up in the detention policy blasted in the DOJ inspector general’s report were targeted based on little more than their country of origin, ethnicity or race.

The ACLU has provided legal support to a growing number of people who have been the victims of racial and ethnic discrimination. The ACLU has also challenged practices such as the use of immigrant registration programs, discrimination against Arab and Muslim airplane passengers by Transportation Security Administration authorities, federal marshals and airline personnel, and administration efforts to enlist state and local police in the routine enforcement of federal immigration laws.

“”The war on terrorism isn’t served by allowing discrimination based on country of origin,”” the ACLU’s Murphy said. “”Just as profiling in police traffic stops creates an adversarial relationship between African American neighborhoods and the police, targeting immigrants based only on the country they come from will undercut their cooperation with our government. Just as in criminal investigations, racial profiling in national security investigations is an ineffective substitute for hard leads and individualized suspicion.””

The plenary on racial profiling and all other conference plenary sessions will be webcast live at

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