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Long Time Coming: Trayvon's Law

For the first time in a decade, Congress holds a hearing on anti-profiling legislation.

Photo Credit: AFP


The name of Trayvon Martin was invoked early and often at a Capitol Hill hearing on federal anti-profiling laws Tuesday as supporters hope the furor over the shooting of the Florida teenage will prompt Congress to take up a legislation that has languished since 2001.

“The senseless death of this innocent young man should be a wake-up call,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, a co-sponsor of legislation that would expand current federal law enforcement guidelines against profiling and mandate training on racial profiling at all federal law enforcement agencies.

“He was profiled, followed, chased and murdered,” said Frederica Wilson, the cowboy hat-wearing congresswoman from Miami where Trayvon lived with his father. “This case has captured international attention and will go down in history as a textbook example of racial profiling.”

More than 225 organizations submitted testimony for the hearing, which included testimony by five congressmen, civil liberties advocates and two police officials. Five senators attended, including Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. Most of the speakers favored the legislation, sponsored by Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, which would also forbid law enforcement officers from using race, ethnicity or religion as a factor in routine policing decisions.

The profiling issue exploded into national consciousness earlier this year with intense media coverage of the story of the boy who came home from a convenience store with a snack for his brother only be shot dead by a volunteer neighborhood security guard.  Last week, Florida investigators concluded that George Zimmerman had  “profiled” Martin as he passed through a residential neighborhood in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26, resulting in an altercation in which Zimmerman shot Martin. Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder.

The standing-room-only crowd in the Dirksen Senate Office Building demonstrated how the social media campaign to demanding  “Justice for Trayvon” had revived the profiling issue in Washington. The last time Congress held hearings on anti-profiling legislation was the summer of 2001, when revelations about the profiling practices of the New Jersey and Maryland state troopers had prompted a broad-based sentiment that using race and ethnicity to make traffic stops was fundamentally wrong and unfair. Profiling is “wrong and we will end it in America,” said President George W. Bush in February 2001.

Then came Sept. 11. Profiling gained legitimacy as a national security tool. The Bush administration explicitly used racial profiling to contact non-citizens from Muslim countries under the program  National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) set up by  Kris Kobach, then an attorney in the Bush Justice Department, now an immigration advis0r to Mitt Romney.  More than 82,000 people from 25 countries (24 of them predominantly Muslim) were contacted, fingerprinted and interrogated. More than 12,000 were deported. The Bush Justice Department did issue a ban on racial profiling in 2003 but the DOJ guidelines allowed the use of religion and national origin as a law enforcement criteria.

After the failure of Bush and Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, profiling Mexicans and Central Americans became more common. With the federal government unable to control the flow of people into the country,  Arizona, Alabama and Georgia passed laws requiring police to check the status of anyone for whom there is a “reasonable suspicion” of being undocumented. “There is no way to enforce the laws ‘show me your papers’ provisions without engaging in stereotypes based on race and ethnicity,” Anthony Romero of the ACLU told the hearing.

Yet as profiling has become entrenched in drug enforcement, counterterrorism and immigration control, said criminologist David Harris, research shows it is an ineffective law enforcement tool. “In many contexts, in many types of police agencies, the results all fall in the same direction: when racial or ethnic profiling is used, police are less likely, not more likely, to catch bad guys,” Harris said.

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