Invoking the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, two Democratic congressmen joined civil rights leaders Tuesday to promote legislation abolishing racial profiling by police officers.
“Civil rights is still the unfinished business of this nation,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. “It is against the values of America to single out a person because of their race or religion or ethnic background.”
Racial profiling concerns have boiled over after neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was found not guilty earlier this month in Martin’s death. While the legislation would not have directly applied to Zimmerman, as he is not a police officer, Cardin described Martin’s killing as a tragedy that resulted from racial profiling.
“The jury has spoken as to the criminal liability, but there is no question that but for racial profiling, Trayvon Martin would be alive today,” Cardin said. “He was identified solely because of what he looked like, rather than any fact related to an individual crime.”
A juror in the Zimmerman case, only identified by her juror number B37, told CNN that she did not believe race was a factor.
The bill, sponsored by Cardin in the Senate and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., in the House of Representatives, prevents police from identifying suspects based on a person’s race, religion, national origin or ethnicity. It also mandates training on racial profiling and prioritizes funds for departments that restrict the practice.
The Obama administration has made small steps to address racial profiling; when Attorney General Eric Holder took office in 2009, he called for a review of the Justice Department’s racial profiling guidance, but the process is still ongoing. A 2004 Amnesty International report found that more than 32 million Americans have been victims of racial profiling.
Margaret Huang, the executive director of the Rights Working Group, a human rights coalition, said that she believes Holder is close to releasing revisions to the guidance but is worried that exceptions for national security or border security would “swallow the rule.”
Racial profiling “doesn’t work, regardless of what the context is,” she said.
While Conyers said that he expected the push to be a bipartisan effort, both the House bill and its Senate companion have failed to attract any Republican co-sponsors. Conyers, who has been filing the bill since 2001, had only one Republican co-sponsor on his last version of the bill in 2011, Illinois Rep. Timothy Johnson. Johnson has since retired.
Many GOP senators were reluctant to comment on the bill outside of their weekly meeting, citing unfamiliarity with it. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said that while he would look at the legislation, he felt hesitant to limit the discretion and judgment of a police officer.
“I want to make sure that our police have the ability and the tools to protect the American people,” he said. “I would have concerns about restricting police from being able to do their jobs, but . . . people have to be treated fairly and we certainly can’t discriminate.”
The National Fraternal Order of Police objected to the bill at a 2011 hearing, saying that it solved a “problem that doesn’t exist” and feared that the overbroad definition of racial profiling could handcuff officers. While the group did not return a request for comment Tuesday, its website said the organization opposes the legislation.
By Ben Kamisar
McClatchy Washington Bureau