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Civil Rights Advocates Renew Push To End Racial Profiling

via Flickr/davidsonscott15

Civil rights advocates hope to build on the public awareness surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and others to push for a federal ban on racial profiling and to strengthen laws across the country. While Missouri ranks among those states with one of the more comprehensive laws on the books,  it falls short of what advocates say is necessary to combat racial profiling effectively. 

The primary focus of Missouri’s law deals with the collection and reporting of data related to traffic stops, including:

  • Age, gender and race or minority group of the individual stopped
  • Reason for the stop and location
  • Whether a search was conducted and whether contraband was found
  • Crime charged if an arrest was made

Other provisions of the law include:

  • Prohibiting so-called pretextual stops, or when an officer routinely stops members of minority groups for such things as a broken tail light to investigate other criminal violations
  • Requiring the state's attorney general to analyze data collected from police departments and to submit an annual report to state lawmakers.
  • Counseling and training for officers who have engaged in race-based stops.

The findings of this year's report show that in Missouri African Americans were stopped at a rate 59 percent greater than expected based solely on their proportion of the state's driving population. Earlier reports have also documented that black drivers are stopped at a disproportionately high rate.

On the national level, Cornell William Brooks, NAACP president and CEO, said recent events and the subsequent media coverage may represent the best chance in more than a decade for civil rights organizations to pass meaningful legislation. 

“When we consider the tragedies of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and many others, it makes clear that we need a national ban on racial profiling,”  said Brooks, who described racial profiling as a “pandemic of police misconduct” and a “day-to-day reality” for communities of color.

Credit NAACP
Cornell William Brooks, NAACP president and CEO

“Our generation was supposed to be the first generation of African Americans and Latino Americans and other communities of color to be judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character," Brooks continued. "Sadly we find ourselves as the most profiled and most incarcerated generation in history, in this country.”

A new report by the NAACP, "Born Suspect," looks at state laws across the country and calls on the Department of Justice to update its "Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies," and serves as a blueprint for advocates to build effective campaigns to enact new laws. 

The report, released during last month’s legislative conference of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in Washington, shows that 30 states do have some form of racial profiling laws on the books, but 20 states do not explicitly prohibit racial profiling.

Seventeen states have laws banning so-called pretextual traffic stops, providing criminal penalties for profiling violations and requiring mandatory data collection for all stops and searches.

Data Don’t Tell The Whole Story

Even with its mandatory data collection and reporting requirement, Missouri’s law is insufficient in terms of the amount of data collected and its lack of integration, says Phillip Atiba Goff of the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA. 

“It’s not a sexy problem," said Goff. "It’s hard to say that revolution and justice will come from data integration, but that’s the reality of it."

Credit UCLA
Phillip Atiba Goff

To be effective, data collection and integration should allow comparison of one jurisdiction to another.  “We don’t have data from 911 calls integrated with data from the officer decision to stop somebody," said Goff. "That means that if there are biases in the community and in the officers, we can’t compare them against each other within a department much less between departments.  And if you can’t compare them between departments, then you don’t know which departmental policies are causing greater or lesser inequality.”

Goff says combating racial profiling would benefit from evidence-based approaches that show what works and what doesn’t.  “If I want to go and figure out what I need to buy for my dad for father’s day, we’ve got evidence-based approaches on Amazon to tell me that. In this country of innovation, why is it that we don’t have evidence-based approaches to social justice? The reason is because a little data, like a little knowledge, is a dangerous thing.”

Despite Missouri's having one of the more comprehensive laws on the books, the state still appears to have problems with racial profiling, as the annual reports indicate.

“Collecting the data is just the first step," said Barbara Arnwine of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. “Our ultimate goal is to ban and stop racial profiling. It’s not to coexist with it.”

Arnwine said that Missouri’s law lacks the so-called private right of action, which allows individuals to seek a court order to stop a police department from engaging in racial profiling. The NAACP report says only the states of Kansas, Rhode Island and Tennessee allow citizens a private right of action. 

Hilary Shelton, senior vice president for policy and advocacy with the NAACP, said that giving citizens a private right of action goes a long way toward combating racial profiling. “If a police officer misbehaves, if they involve themselves in the process of racial profiling, if they are overly aggressive in handling people of color in the communities they serve or if they utilize some form of brutality, even unnecessary deadly violence,” a private right of action would empower citizens “to bring their lawsuits into court and serve as the eyes and ears of the community as well.” 

Credit University of Delaware
Leland Ware

Leland Ware, one of the architects of Missouri’s law when it passed in 2000, was working with the ACLU of Eastern Missouri at the time.  He’s now a professor of law and public policy at the University of Delaware.

Passing the law in Jefferson City “was a tremendous victory," said Ware, "I think we outdid many other states in actually getting a law passed.” 

But Ware is not certain that the law has actually accomplished what he hoped it would.

“We now have the data every year, we know what the data is, but it hasn’t stopped racial profiling, although I’m not sure I expected to be 100 percent successful," said Ware. "So, I guess it depends on how you look at it, but the events in Ferguson, for example, which are classic racial profiling, it hasn’t affected that kind of activity.”

The problem of racial profiling, says Ware, results from “the lack of training” and what he calls an “intergenerational culture of policing.” Stereotypes are a major factor. “So what happens in these cases, based on my research, is the police overreact in the case of young African American males – and they have this stereotype of a dangerous person and so they react in fear… they will shoot without probable cause – they just overreact.”

If he were writing the law today, Ware said he would also require police to wear body cameras. “It would protect them from unfounded accusations and it would capture misconduct. It wouldn’t solve the problem, but it would be a giant step toward diminishing it."

New legislation being proposed on state and federal level

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Joshua Peters

Earlier this year, state Rep. Joshua Peters, D-St. Louis, introduced legislation, HB 1122, patterned on the proposed federal End Racial Profiling Act, introduced by U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.  Among other things, it would give citizens a private right of action.  The bill never got out of a House committee in Jefferson City.  Peters says he hopes to file the measure again in December, ahead of next year’s legislative session.

Meanwhile, advocates in Washington are also looking to pass another data collection measure, one that tracks the number of individuals who die while in police custody.  The NAACP’s Shelton says it is “very disturbing that there is no central collection point for deaths in custody. That is when an American is actually stopped by a police officer that results in death – incarcerated in a manner that results in death or anything along those lines.  We don’t collect that data in one place."

He said the U.S. House of Representatives approved the “Deaths in Custody Act,” or HR 1447, last December and the measure, S 2807, is now pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Shelton said advocates hope that the measure will be considered following the November elections and before this session of Congress goes out of business.