ACLU Tells Nation's Police: 'Skin Color Should Not Be Grounds for Suspicion'

February 25, 1999 12:00 am

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Thursday, February 25, 1999

WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union is pleased to stand up with our friends and colleagues today in calling for White House action on the national disgrace of police brutality.

Every day seems to bring more headlines about incidents of serious law enforcement abuses against people of color — whether it is Abner Louima or Amadou Diallo in New York City, Tyisha Miller in Riverside, California, Johnny Gammage in Pittsburgh or Kuan Ghung Kao in Sonoma County, California.

These episodes of police brutality are but the ugliest and bloodiest symptoms of a larger problem: the fact that for people of color — especially Africans Americans and Hispanics — racially motivated killings, beatings, traffic stops, illegal searches, arrests and harassment are an all too familiar part of life in America.

Misguided crime fighting and drug abatement policies have led to harsh police crackdowns targeting people who fit a “drug courier” or “gang member” profile. Police practices such as traffic stops for minor infractions, streets searches, juvenile curfews, and anti-loitering laws, all implemented in the name of the war on drugs or zero-tolerance crime policies — have been used to target minorities who are not involved in criminal activity and who would not have encountered the criminal justice system but for racially biased police practices.

How has this happened? The answer is as black-and-white as the headlines we read every day: skin color makes you a suspect in America.

But instead of addressing discriminatory law enforcement abuses and enforcing existing civil rights protections for people of color, lawmakers in Washington are going overboard creating new federal crimes.

Leaders in both parties collaborated on harsh and punitive laws such as the Omnibus Crime Bill of 1994 that created over 50 new federal death penalties, enacted “three-strikes” mandatory sentencing and excluded a Racial Justice Act that would have reduced chances of discrimination in application of the death penalty.

Even conservatives are frustrated with politicians hooked on federal crime bills. In a report issued last December, Chief Justice Rehnquist openly chastised Congress for enacting laws that clog the federal courts with crimes that should be in the purview of the states.

Similarly, a 1998 American Bar Association panel headed by former Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese criticized the over-federalization of crime, calling the policy “misguided and ineffectual.”

And despite opposition to federal crime penalty expansion across the ideological spectrum, President Clinton used his 1999 State of the Union address to call for passage of a new punitive crime bills, a call that was later echoed by leaders of both parties in Congress.

Unless civil rights groups are mobilized, racial minorities will continue to be the casualty of a federal government that provokes states to be more aggressive without restraining or questioning abuses of civil rights and civil liberties at the federal, state and local level.

The ACLU is therefore calling for a moratorium on new crime penalty bills until some of these systemic civil rights problems are addressed.

Failure to address these problems will hasten the creation of huge populations that are permanently disenfranchised, cynical about the rule of law, unable to aspire to jobs that pay a living wage and shut out of the American dream. Worse, we will grow into a society hooked on retribution rather than rehabilitation, and we will be at war with each other rather than banding together to fight true threats to democracy and safe streets.

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