WASHINGTON — Members of civil rights organizations met in Washington on Tuesday to discuss a strategy for passing the End Racial Profiling Act, a bill that lays out a national, comprehensive approach to end racial discrimination by the nation’s law enforcement.
The meeting was convened by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who introduced the bill in May 2013, only to watch it die in a gridlocked Congress. The Democratic senator reintroduced the bill last week in the wake of the controversial death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August.
“We have a racial problem with policing in the United States, and the way we have been approaching it has not been serious because we don’t have a plan. We don’t even know what the numbers are,” said Phillip A. Goff, president of the Center for Policing Equity and associate professor of psychology at UCLA, who sat on a panel of guest speakers. “We can’t answer basic questions like how often does it happen? Where does it happen? How bad is the problem?”
The End Racial Profiling Act, along with its House counterpart of the same name, he said, is a first step.
Under the bill, it will be illegal for a police officer to profile a person on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity or national origin. It also requires police forces on all levels — state, local, and federal — to receive training on racial profiling and to collect data on routine law enforcement and investigatory activities.
The data collected can then be analyzed to better understand the scope of the problem.
“How many more Michael Browns will we have that are going to lose their life? How many Trayvon Martins?” said Cardin as he began the meeting.
There are 17 states with racial profiling bans, according to Amnesty International USA. Six other states have bans that only apply to motorists, and exclude pedestrians.
In Maryland, police have been required since 2001 to provide information on traffic stops, including the demographics of the driver, the reason for the stop, the reason for the search if one was conducted, and the type of search.
“We need to pass legislation that once and for all says racial profiling is wrong,” said Cardin.
The legislation will likely be blocked by the Republican-led House, and faces an uncertain outcome in the Senate. Several groups are arguing that new rules against racial profiling aren’t necessary.
Roger Clegg, president and general counsel for the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, said the law’s lowering of the standards required to sue will only result in a glut of litigation.
“It creates incentives to address the problem through litigation,” he said. “But litigation is expensive. It’s unpredictable. Juries are sometimes unpredictable. It’s not a great way to address a problem.”
Clegg also said the extent of racial profiling throughout the country is exaggerated, and much of the disproportionality in police efforts is because they’re focused in high-crime areas, which he said tend to be more black or Latino.
The Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 325,000 police officers nationwide, has also come out against the legislation.
But Tony Rothert, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, who has been active in helping the Brown family obtain information from the Ferguson police, said the unrest there shows the lack of trust between people of color and their police, and highlights why legislation is needed.
“There’s nothing special about the city of Ferguson. There’s nothing special about the Ferguson police department,” he said, speaking to a crowded room. “If I were making a list of the dozens of police departments within St. Louis County where “Ferguson” would have happened, Ferguson would not have been in my top 10. There’s likely a million other places where it’s waiting to happen.”