March 27, 2012

ON THE DEATH OF TRAYVON MARTIN AND A CALL TO END RACIAL PROFILING

Mr. President, I rise today to discuss the tragic death of Trayvon Martin and the larger issue of racial profiling.

On Monday I spoke about this issue at the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore.   Joining me were representatives from various faith and civil rights groups in Baltimore, as well as graduates from the Center’s program.  This weekend we saw numerous rallies take place across the United States, including rallies called “Million Hoodie Marches” where individuals wore hoodies in solidarity with Trayvon Martin.

I was touched by what President Obama said on Friday about this case.  He said: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.  And I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this.  I think all of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how something like this happened.”

That’s why I am so pleased that the Justice Department, under the supervision of Attorney General Eric Holder, has announced an investigation into the avoidable shooting death of Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012.  As we all know from the news, an unarmed Martin, 17, was shot in Sanford, FL on his way home from a convenience store by a neighborhood watch volunteer.

I am pleased that the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice will join with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in investigating the tragic, avoidable shooting death of Trayvon Martin.  In particular, I also support the Justice Department’s decision to send the Community Relations Service to Sanford to help defuse tensions while the investigation is being conducted.

I join all Americans in wanting a full and complete investigation into the shooting death of Trayvon Martin to ensure that justice is served.  There are many questions that we need the Justice Department to answer.

One is whether Trayvon was the victim of a hate crime by Zimmerman.  One is whether Trayvon was a victim of racial profiling by the police.  In other words, was Trayvon targeted by Mr. Zimmerman because he was black?  Was Trayvon treated differently by local law enforcement in their shooting investigation because he was black and the aggressor was white?  Would the police have acted differently with a white victim and a black aggressor?  DOJ has the authority here to investigate the potential hate crime, as well as whether there is a pattern or practice of misconduct here by local law enforcement, in terms of applying the laws equally to all citizens and not discriminating on the basis of race.

Tom Perez is the Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.  I want make sure we have both federal and state investigations that ultimately prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law, as well as make any needed policy changes, particularly to local police practices and procedures.

Trayvon’s tragic death also leads to a discussion of the broader issue of racial profiling.  I have called for putting an end to racial profiling, a practice that singles out individuals based on race or other protected categories.  In October 2011, I introduced legislation, End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA), S. 1670, which would protect minority communities by prohibiting the use of racial profiling by law enforcement officials.

This bill would prohibit state and local law enforcement officials from using race as a factor in criminal investigations, including in “deciding upon the scope and substance of law enforcement activity following the initial investigatory procedure.”  This bill would mandate training and provide grants on racial profiling issues and data collection by local and state law enforcement. 

Finally, this bill would condition the receipt of federal funds by state and local law enforcement on two grounds.  First, under this bill, state and local law enforcement would have to “maintain adequate policies and procedures designed to eliminate racial profiling.”  Second, they must “eliminate any existing practices that permit or encourage racial profiling.”

The legislation I introduced is supported by the NAACP, ACLU, the Rights Working Group, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and numerous other organizations.  On April 18, I look forward to the advocacy day that these civil rights groups are planning on Capitol Hill to lobby on racial profiling issues and raise awareness about this issue and my legislation. 

Racial profiling is bad policy, but given the state of our budgets, it also diverts scarce resources from real law enforcement. Law enforcement officials nationwide already have tight budgets. The more resources spent investigating individuals solely because of their race or religion, the fewer resources directed at suspects who are actually demonstrating illegal behavior.

Racial profiling has no place in modern law enforcement. The vast majority of 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. However, Congress and the Justice Department can and should still take steps to prohibit racial profiling and finally root out its use.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the “equal protection of the laws” to all Americans.  Racial profiling is abhorrent to that principle, and should be ended once and for all.

As the late Senator Kennedy often said, “Civil Rights is the great unfinished business of America.”  Let’s continue the fight here to make sure that we truly have equal justice under law, and equal protection of the laws as guaranteed by our Constitution.