In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, the NAACP urged Congress Tuesday to swiftly take up a decade-old bill that would define and examine how much of a problem racial profiling is in America.
On a day when the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on racial profiling, Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, praised law enforcement agents as “hard-working, conscientious men and women who use proven, data-driven, non-discriminatory methods of policing to protect and serve the communities in which they work.”
“The problem is that when even one of their law enforcement colleagues uses racial profiling, the trust of an entire community can be lost and the integrity of their work challenged,” Shelton said.
NAACP officials want Congress to act on a decade-old anti-racial profiling bill re-introduced last year by Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) that would prohibit law enforcement agencies from using racial profiling in their investigations.
The bill calls for a national definition of racial profiling, describing it, in essence as “the practice of a law enforcement agent or agency relying, to a degree, on race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion in selecting which individuals to subject to routine or spontaneous investigatory activities.”
The bill also calls for mandatory training on racial profiling, including the collection of data to be submitted to the Justice Department, and withholding federal funds if state and local governments don’t do anything to stop racial profiling.
Shelton said the bill would successfully address racial profiling by “calling for data collection to assess the extent of the problem, train law enforcement officials from the unit commander to the cop-on-the-beat on how to not use this ineffective and counterproductive policy, and finally, offers citizens and the government avenues for private rights of action to ensure accountability to make certain that racial profiling is stopped.”
Cardin said the need to address racial profiling has become more pressing following Martin’s death. The 17-year-old was shot in February by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman wasn’t initially charged with Martin’s death in part because of Florida’s so-called “Stand Your Ground” law.
But after scores of protests and complaints of how Sanford law enforcement officials handled the case, Zimmerman was charged in connection with Martin’s death and is now awaiting trial.
“We have a problem in this country, and we need to do something about that,” Cardin said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “The question that really needs to be answered in regards to Trayvon Martin was: Was he initiallty pursued because of the color of his skin? Would Mr. Zimmerman have done the same thing if it was a white child rather than an African-American?”
“This legislation would make it clear that racial profiling will not be allowed in this country,” Cardin added. “Racial profiling is un-American. It’s against the values of our nation. It’s contrary to the 14th Amendment under the Constitution which provides for equal protection under the law.”
At Tuesday’s Judiciary committee hearing, witnesses and onlookers in the packed hearing room invoked Martin’s name and said his encounter with Zimmerman typifies what blacks and other minorities experience in this country every day.
“Trayvon was murdered by someone who thought he looked suspicious,” Rep. Frederica Wilson ( D-Fla.) said. “It is a sad reality that we have to teach boys [about racial profiling] just to survive in their own communities.”
East Palo Alto, Calif. Police Chief Ronald Davis told senators that even though he’s a law enforcement official, he’s had “The Talk” that minority parents often have with their children.
“Even though I’m a police chief with more than 27 years of experience, I know that when I teach my son how to drive, I will have to teach him what to do when he gets stopped by the police,” he said.
But Officer Frank Gale, second vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police, testified that the anti-racial profiling bill was “offensive” to the nation’s largest law enforcement labor organization and that the definition of racial profiling is too broad.
“It is clear that racism is morally and ethically wrong,” Gale said. “(But) this bill provides an answer to a problem that doesn’t exist, unless you believe that law enforcement is patently racist.”
Gale said the bill presumes that a person is “a racist because of the color his uniform.”