Earlier this month, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security held a hearing — "21st Century Law Enforcement: How Smart Policing Targets Criminal Behavior" — focused on the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of racial profiling. Witness after witness maintained that targeting people based on race is shoddy police work.
"The racially discriminatory practice of racial profiling must be challenged when we find we cannot drive down an interstate, walk down the street, work, pray, shop, travel or even enter into our own homes without being detained for questioning by law-enforcement agents merely because of suspicion generated by the color of our skin and other physical characteristics," said Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau.
Jiles H. Ship, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, argued that the practice erodes community trust and undermines the very work of policing. "When certain communities view the criminal-justice system as unjust, they are less likely to be cooperative and more likely to withhold information," he said.
David A. Harris, professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, made it plain. "Failing to address the profiling issue is something our country and our public safety cannot afford."
Last week, days after this hearing, two senators announced their sponsorship of a bill to ban law enforcement from using racial profiling around the country. It would enable people to file lawsuits against state and local police departments, which would lose funding if they are found to have racially profiled. Co-sponsored by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the End Racial Profiling Act of 2011 involves five key provisions:
* Prohibits racial profiling (enforced by individuals or the Justice Department filing a suit in state court or in a federal district court)
* Mandates training on racial-profiling issues as part of federal law-enforcement training
* Withholds federal law-enforcement funding if state and local governments fail to adopt effective policies that prohibit racial profiling
* Provides Justice Department grants for developing and implementing police practices that discourage profiling
* Requires the U.S. attorney general to report on ongoing discriminatory profiling practices
"Our law-enforcement officials who put their lives on the line every day handle their jobs with professionalism, diligence and fidelity to the rule of law," Reid said in a statement. "It's imperative that they use their scarce resources for real law enforcement that targets those who engage in criminal activity, not one group of people based on their race, ethnicity or national origin. I will continue working to build support for this crucial legislation while also working to create jobs and turn the economy around."
Reid co-sponsored similar legislation in 2004, which failed — perhaps on the strength of arguments that racial profiling is just fine. Supporters argue that it's an effective police response to higher levels of crime by people of color, and only makes minority communities safer in the end. "All these arguments fail," said the University of Pittsburgh's Harris at the House hearing.
What's your take on racial profiling and the proposed bill to make it illegal?
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.