Restore Equal Protection Under Law: End Racial Profiling
A police officer parked on the side of the road sits in his car and closely monitors his speed-detection device. Each car that zooms by is well over the speed limit, so pulling over any one of the drivers would be legally justified. The police officer makes his move, switching on the siren. As the car lurches ahead, its driver knows exactly who to target: the person with the dark complexion.
While many police officers are honest public servants, too many others use race, ethnicity, religion and national origin as sufficient cause for harassing well-meaning, law-abiding citizens. Not only are minorities more likely to be stopped, but the stops are also more likely to result in frisks, searches, and arrests than those involving whites.** NYPD data collected from 2005 to 2008 shows that physical force was used by police officers against a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos compared to the amount of force used against whites. LAPD statistics show that per 10,000 residents, African Americans were stopped at a rate 3,400 times higher than that of whites, and Hispanics were stopped at a rate 360 times higher. LAPD statistics also reveal that of those individuals who were stopped and frisked, African Americans were 42.3 percent less likely to be found with a weapon than whites, and Hispanics were 31.8 percent less likely to be found with a weapon than their white counterparts. This piece of data in particular reveals that just because a person has a certain appearance does not mean that he or she is any more likely than anyone else to be engaged in unlawful behavior–unless of course, law enforcement officials have received specific and verifiable evidence that an individual of a certain appearance has committed a crime.
There are three main areas of law enforcement activity that rely all too heavily on racial profiling: street-level crime, immigration, and counterterrorism.
- Using racial profiling to fight street-level crime, which often revolves around the war on drugs, not only fails to identify criminal behavior, but also results in embarrassment and undue distress for wrongly accused individuals. For example, in the summer of 2008, two teens and their football coach were driving in a car; all were African American. Newark police pulled the car over, demanded that the passengers step out of the vehicle, and held them at gunpoint while the car was searched. After one officer spoke with abusive language to the coach, the search revealed nothing more than football equipment.
- Using racial profiling to enforce immigration statutes also results in unwarranted stops and interrogations that harm the victims more than identify illegal activity. For example, a nine-month pregnant woman named Juana Villegas was pulled over by Tennessee police for what was classified as “careless driving,” which can easily be a subjective pretense for targeting minorities. She did not have a driver’s license with her, but instead of giving her a citation, as is typically the case with this offense, the police officer arrested and detained her. This permitted authorities to conduct a background check on Villegas, which revealed that she was an undocumented immigrant who had been deported 12 years earlier. Villegas had no criminal record but was still declared a medium-security prisoner. Upon going into labor, the police handcuffed her on the way to the hospital and cuffed her leg to the hospital bed. She was not allowed to see her husband, who was permitted only to take the baby while Villegas was sent back to jail. Because Villegas was unable to breast-feed her child, her breasts became infected and her baby developed jaundice. Once she was transferred to the jurisdiction of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency provision that prohibits the separation of mothers and infants reunited Villegas with her child.
- In the wake of September 11, 2001, many Arabs, Muslims, and Sikhs have been subjected to unprovoked episodes of racial profiling that have failed to advance counterterrorism efforts. Individuals perceived to be Arab or Muslim often face higher scrutiny at airport security checkpoints, even though many terrorist attacks have been carried out by non-Arabs and non-Muslims, such as the 2001 attempted “shoe-bombing” by Richard Reid, a British citizen of Jamaican decent, and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh, a white American.
Using physical appearance as the primary reason for suspecting the culpability of individuals is simply not a reliable or effective means of law enforcement. In fact, racial profiling may lessen the safety of our communities. Devoting our scarce resources toward unfounded suspicion may cause law enforcement officials to miss the real threat, not to mention that it reinforces false stereotypes and causes distress for many minorities.
That’s why we need the End Racial Profiling Act (S.1670), which would legally prohibit racial profiling and enforce the injunction through the judicial system by such means as specializing instruction in federal law enforcement training; conditioning state and local government receipt of federal funds on the successful adoption of anti-racial profiling policies; awarding Justice Department grants to state and local governments that best implement practices that defeat racial profiling; and positioning the Attorney General as watchdog to assess such practices. In doing so, the legislation would lead to more effective law enforcement, restore the image of law enforcement officials as protectors of society, save money by redirecting resources to actual threats, and ensure that everyone receives the humane treatment and civil rights they deserve. Click here to urge your Senator to support the End Racial Profiling Act of 2011.
Photo courtesy of the ACLU.
**The information in this blog was derived from the comprehensive report by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, published in March 2011. Click here to read the report, titled “Restoring a National Consensus: The Need to End Racial Profiling in America.”