Baltimore and Prince George’s County, Md., were the sites of two forums on racial profiling hosted by Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), and local civil rights groups, this week.

Cardin has introduced legislation on Capitol Hill, the End Racial Profiling Act, and the roundtable discussions were meant to galvanize a grassroots movement to propel the bill through Congress and otherwise combat the scourge of racial profiling, officials said.

“The purpose of the event is to start a conversation about racial profiling to get legislation passed in Congress. But unless that conversation is carried out in houses and churches and communities it does no good,” said Robert Ross, president of the NAACP, Prince George’s County branch.

Racial profiling has been a problem for the Black community for a very long time, perhaps as far back as slavery, when an unescorted Black person would often be harassed and questioned or accused of wrongdoing with little to no cause beyond the color of their skin.

But the 2012 slaying of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teen who was stalked, confronted and then shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, has revived public awareness of the issue and a new sense of urgency to reduce its prevalence and impact.

“Now we’re saying enough is enough,” Ross said.

While its definition remains unclear, many accept racial profiling as law enforcement policies that disparately impact communities of color.

For example, for decades, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) has employed a preemptive policing tool commonly known as “stop and frisk,” in which officers detain, question and search individuals deemed “suspicious.” Between January 2004 and June 2012 the NYPD made 4.4 million stops, according to court documents, and over 80 percent of those stops were of Blacks or Hispanics.

In an example closer to home, for years, Maryland State Police were renowned for illegally targeting African-American motorists for stops and searches along the state’s highways, prompting the ACLU to file a class action suit against them in the 1990s. Though the parties signed a consent decree in 2003, however, too much remains the same, said Deborah Jeon, legal director of ACLU-MD, who was involved in the case.

“When I filed the suit in Maryland, I had high hopes,” Jeon said. “Twenty years later, it has proven to be a very stubborn problem.”

And the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 made matters worse, activists said.

“Since 9/11 and the {Patriot Act} this country has gone berserk,” Ross said. “Racial profiling is worse now. It (the terrorist attacks) gave them (authorities) a reason to discriminate and that’s why New York was able to get away with stop-and-frisk.”

More recently, state laws have begun to target immigrants, such as Arizona’s “papers please” policy –upheld by the Supreme Court in June 2012 – which empowers its police officers to check the immigration status of anyone stopped, detained or arrested who they reasonably believe may be illegally present in the U.S.; and requires them to check detainees’ immigration papers before they are released.

“Immigrants in Arizona have been made to feel that they have a target on their back,” Jeon, the ACLU legal director, said. “Anyone who is Latino in Arizona, and in other places, is at risk of being targeted by police.”

Countering these discriminatory policies has been difficult because many law enforcement agencies denied their very existence, activists said.

“In Maryland we went through a very long period where the police were in denial about their problem with racial profiling and were defensive,” Jeon said. “ without that acknowledgement it has been hard to get folks to stop the practice. Unless there is a message from the top down that we are not going to do this; unless a lot of thought is put into it and there is training it would be very hard to address this problem.”

The End Racial Profiling Act will make such denial harder. It not only defines what the practice is – giving law enforcement agencies clear guidelines by which to gauge their policies – it also provides for training and data collection and “makes it clear that that kind of indiscriminate profiling will not be tolerated,” Cardin said.

“Racial profiling is not just wrong, it is counterproductive a waste of resources,” the Democrat said. “It affects community support for law enforcement; it has no place in our society.”

Cardin said he believes the legislation, which has failed in several other Congresses, has a better chance of success now. Martin’s shooting and Zimmerman’s acquittal have stirred public outrage and has created momentum for the measure, he said.

“We’ve got the support now because the Trayvon Martin case highlighted the issue,” the Maryland senator said. “Someone died, and it never would have happened if there wasn’t racial profiling involved.”

The occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington this week has also come at an auspicious time for the legislation, Cardin added, because it reminds the public of the promise of equality and what America can be.

“The timing is right for this legislation to pass.”


Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO