Monday, April 22, 2002

Federal action on profiling held up

Bill in Congress slowed by Sept. 11

By Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft vowed to end racial profiling by law enforcement agencies, but more than a year later, the government does not appear any closer to action.

        Momentum in Congress on a bill that would outlaw racial profiling and require law enforcement agencies to collect data on traffic stops has been lost as lawmakers turn their attention to the war against terrorism and other issues.

        Civil rights activists claim privately the bill has little chance of moving through Congress this year. The Justice Department has not an nounced its position on any new racial profiling legislation and still is working on a report on profiling by federal law enforcement agencies that was expected last year.

        In some instances, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have hardened opposition to a profiling law among police and conservative lawmakers already skeptical of federal intervention.

        “Final passage is a long shot,” conceded Rachel King, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

        Most activists and lawmakers involved in the debate think the terrorist attacks, and not hostility to a

        profiling law, is the main reason the issue has stalled. But more than six months had passed between President Bush's declaration and the Sept. 11 attacks, and the only tangible activity on racial profiling was a few bill introductions and a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution.

        The Justice Department's response to the attacks has raised more questions about profiling and civil liberties. Mr. Ashcroft and other federal officials have said no terror suspects are being investigated solely because of race or ethnicity, yet Arab-American groups have complained of discrimination.

        “Things have gotten worse, not better,” said Hilary Shelton, who directs the Washington bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “We've established that there is a problem. The statistics clearly point out that racial profiling happens in this country.”

        Arab-American groups had not been vocal in the profiling debate before Sept. 11 but now strongly favor federal legislation.

        “Many (lawmakers) see the need now,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a public-policy group. “Today, it is Arab-Americans. Tomorrow, it may be a different community.”

        Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who sponsored a profiling bill in the House, described progress this year as uphill because lawmakers still have to negotiate the budget and may be pressed to wrap up early in an election year. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., has sponsored a companion bill in the Senate.

        Mr. Conyers also is concerned that attitudes among some police may have shifted since the at tacks.

        “I think the largest obstacle is the fact that since Sept. 11 there are those in the law enforcement community that have begun to look at profiling as a necessary evil to fight terrorism,” he said.

        The Fraternal Order of Police, which represents rank-and-file officers, before Sept. 11 had opposed a profiling bill as unnecessary federal intervention that could further damage police-community relations.

        “Every argument we made last year still stands,” said Steve Young, the group's president and a lieutenant with the Marion, Ohio, police. “It makes a presumption of guilt on the entire profession.”

        Mr. Young and others who work with police say local departments are better suited to deal with the issue and pointed to a landmark settlement earlier this month in Cincinnati between civil rights groups that alleged 30 years of police profiling and discrimination and the city.

        In Cincinnati, struggling to overcome riots last year after the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man, all sides agreed to federal mediation to settle a lawsuit that could have poisoned the community for years.

        The agreement, which includes separate findings from a Justice Department investigation on the use of force by city police, creates a Citizen Complaint Authority and requires annual surveys to track progress on police accountability.

        Scott Greenwood, general counsel for the ACLU of Ohio that joined civil rights groups in the lawsuit, described the settlement as the “best police-community relations agreement ever negotiated in the U.S.”

        “That doesn't mean that it's going to solve racial profiling all over the country,” said Mr. Greenwood, who still believes a federal profiling law is necessary.

        According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 20 states now have some type of racial profiling law. Hundreds of police and sheriff's departments collect demographic data during traffic stops. That includes police in Cincinnati, which began collecting the data in May.

        Lorie Fridell, director of research for the Police Executive Research Forum, said profiling disputes should be resolved locally. The forum, which represents police chiefs, also has cautioned police and lawmakers against drawing conclusions from traffic stop data because racial patterns may not always prove discrimination.

        The forum, with a grant from the Justice Department, is working on guides to help police, lawmakers and community groups analyze traffic stop data.

        “I believe the expectations far exceed social science reality,” Ms. Fridell said.

        Sens. George Voinovich and Mike DeWine have sponsored a bill that would urge the Justice Department to provide education and guidance to police on strategies to discourage racial profiling. The Ohio Republicans have not endorsed Mr. Feingold's profiling bill.

        In February 2001, Mr. Ashcroft sent a letter to leaders on the House and Senate judiciary committees urging them to take action within six months on racial profiling or the Justice Department would proceed on its own. The attorney general suggested a study on traffic-stop data that law enforcement voluntarily collects, which Mr. Conyers already proposed, might be a good start.

        At the time, Mr. Conyers and civil rights activists argued that the government needed to go much further than studying a practice they are convinced has been used for decades to discriminate against minorities. Now, Mr. Conyers agrees a study might be a first step.

        “It's a good starting point,” the congressman said.


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