October 07, 2011

CONGRESS SHOULD PROHIBIT RACIAL PROFILING BY LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES

Today I am introducing legislation in the Senate that would prohibit the use of racial profiling by federal, state, or local law enforcement agencies.  The End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA) had been introduced in previous Congresses by former Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and I am proud to follow his example.  I want to thank Senators Blumenthal, Durbin, Gillibrand, Kerry, Lautenberg, Levin, Menendez, Mikulski, and Stabenow for joining me as original co-sponsors of this legislation.

Racial profiling is ineffective. The more resources that are spent investigating individuals solely because of their race or religion, the fewer resources are being directed at suspects actually demonstrating illegal behavior.  Former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff stated in response to questions about the December 2001 bomb attempt by Richard Reid that “the problem is that the profile many people think they have of what a terrorist is doesn’t fit the reality…and in fact, one of the things the enemy does is to deliberately recruit people who are Western in background or in appearance, so that they can slip by people who might be stereotyping.”

Racial profiling diverts scarce resources from real law enforcement.  In my own state of Maryland, in the 1990’s, the ACLU brought a class-action lawsuit against the Maryland State Police for illegally targeting African-American motorists for stops and searches along Maryland’s highways.  The parties ultimately entered into a federal court consent decree in 2003 in which they made a joint statement that emphasized in part “the need to treat motorists of all races with respect, dignity, and fairness under the law is fundamental to good police work and a just society. The parties agree that racial profiling is unlawful and undermines public safety by alienating communities…”        

Racial profiling demonizes entire communities and perpetuates negative stereotypes based on an individual’s race, ethnicity, or religion.  Earlier this year, I spoke out on the Senate floor and in the Senate Judiciary Committee to share my thoughts on the hearings held in the House of Representatives entitled the "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response" chaired by Congressman Peter King (R-NY). This hearing served only to fan flames of fear and division.  This spectacle crossed the line and chipped away at the religious freedoms and civil liberties we hold so dearly.  Radicalization may be the appropriate subject of a Congressional hearing but not when it is limited to one religion. When that is done, it sends the wrong message to the public and casts a religion with unfounded suspicions.

I agree with Attorney General Holder's remarks to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, where he stated that "in this nation, security and liberty are - at their best - partners, not enemies, in ensuring safety and opportunity for all…I’ve spoken to Arab-Americans who feel that they have not been afforded the full rights – or, just as important, the full responsibilities – of their citizenship.  They tell me that, too often, it feels like ‘us versus them.’  That is intolerable…In this Nation, the document that sets forth the supreme law of the land – the Constitution – is meant to empower, not exclude…Racial profiling is wrong.  It can leave a lasting scar on communities and individuals.  And it is, quite simply, bad policing – whatever city, whatever state.”

Using racial profiling makes it less likely that certain affected communities will voluntarily cooperate with law enforcement and community policing efforts.  Minorities living and working in these communities may also feel discouraged from travelling freely, and it corrodes the public’s trust in government.

The bill I am introducing today, the End Racial Profiling Act, would build on Department of Justice’s current “Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies” issued in 2003.  This official DOJ guidance certainly was a step forward, but it does not have adequate provisions for data collection and enforcement for state and local agencies.  The DOJ guidance also does not have the force of law.

ERPA would prohibit the use of racial profiling by federal, state, or local law enforcement agencies.  The bill clearly defines racial profiling to include race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion as protected classes.  It requires training of law enforcement officers to ensure that they understand the law and its prohibitions.  It creates procedures for receiving, investigating, and resolving complaints about racial profiling.  It would apply equally to federal, state, and local law enforcement, which creates consistent standards at all levels of government.

The vast majority of our law enforcement officials that put their lives on the line every day handle their jobs with professionalism, diligence, and fidelity to the rule of law.  However, Congress and the Justice Department can still take further steps to prohibit racial profiling and root out its use.  I look forward to working with my colleagues to enact this legislation.