A handful of Democratic lawmakers is hoping public outcry over the recent verdict in the shooting of Trayvon Martin will provide momentum for legislation that would end racial profiling by federal law enforcement, but neither party appears eager to take up the bill.
The End Racial Profiling Act of 2013 probably won’t get through Congress this year since top lawmakers in both chambers, including the bill’s co-sponsors, have no plans to bring it to the floor for vote.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., staged an event Tuesday to promote the bill. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told the Washington Examiner that while he hoped to consider the legislation at some point, he doubted that the Senate would get to it this year.
“We are trying to get stuff done but there is kind of a log jam,” said Reid, a co-sponsor.
Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin, D-Ill., another co-sponsor, said he has not even spoken to Cardin about the bill. “I’m interested in it but I just don’t know” about a Senate vote, he told the Examiner.
If history is a guide, the year will end with no action on the legislation, in part because it is a politically perilous subject for both parties.
The End Racial Profiling Act has been floating around Congress for more than a decade but hasn’t received serious consideration, aside from a hearing held last year. Related bills introduced six times between 2001 and 2011 all died in committee in the House or Senate, under both Republican and Democratic leadership.
Reid is not the only top Democrat who has declined to take up the bill. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who was House speaker from 2007 to 2011, didn’t bring the bill up for a vote either.
“During the time Democrats were in the majority, the Judiciary Committee did not report the legislation out of committee,” an aide to Pelosi explained, adding that she supports the bill and is hoping for a floor vote.
Pelosi staged a Democratic hearing on “race and justice” Tuesday, but the legislation did not figure prominently at the event.
The bill would ban federal law enforcement from profiling “to any degree” based on race, ethnicity, religion or nationality, except where there is “trustworthy information” that links someone based on those identifying qualities with a specific crime.
Proponents say the bill is long overdue. Racial profiling has been documented nationwide and has not reduced crime, they say.
Jennifer Bellamy, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, cites New York City’s “stop and frisk” law, which she says targets mostly blacks and Hispanics. In 90 percent of those cases, she said, the searches reveal no criminal activity.
“Racial profiling makes all of us less safe, because it diverts police against more effective law enforcement techniques and it wastes taxpayer dollars,” Bellamy told the Examiner.
New York officials, however, argue that the policy has greatly reduced crime. Critics of the End Racial Profiling Act, including the Fraternal Order of Police, say the bill would impede law enforcement and subject them to crippling lawsuits.
“The resulting litigation burden on law enforcement agencies will be dramatic,” FOP officials said in an analysis of the bill. “After all, once a statistical disparity is demonstrated, it will be up to the law enforcement agency to somehow prove itself innocent of engaging in the unlawful use of race in its procedures and practices.”
The anti-profiling bill would require training for law enforcement and oversight by the Justice Department. It would also allow the attorney general to implement “any other policies and procedures” deemed necessary to end racial profiling.
The bill would require law enforcement to record data on race, ethnicity, national origin, gender and religion for every “routine or spontaneous investigatory activities,” none of which would be subject to Freedom of Information requests from the public.
If the bill were to become law, state and local governments would have to implement the new rules or risk losing federal law enforcement funding.
Roger Clegg, President of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank, said the bill is written so broadly, it would make it harder for the police to fight crime. The wording of the bill is one of the reasons that even Democrats have avoided putting it up for a vote, he said.
Clegg also believes racial profiling numbers are overestimated.
“A bill that tries to solve alleged racial profiling by hauling policemen into court in lawsuits is going to be a tough sell to the American public,” Clegg told the Examiner.
Cardin and Conyers, however, believe 2013 could be the year to pass the legislation, in part because of the public reaction over a Florida jury’s recent decision to exonerate George Zimmerman, who fatally shot Martin during an altercation in a residential parking lot.
The verdict prompted President Obama to speak on racial issues. Although he did not specifically call on Congress to pass the profiling bill, he referred to his own successful effort to end racial profiling a decade ago in Illinois when he was a state senator.
“I think it’d be productive for the Justice Department, governors, mayors to work with law enforcement about training at the state and local levels in order to reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists,” Obama said.
Cardin aides said they do not know when the bill might be considered in the Senate Judiciary Committee and a committee spokeswoman did not return a request for comment.
House Republicans also declined comment.
So far, 15 Senators have signed onto Cardin’s bill, including Reid and Durbin. All are Democrats. In the House, there are 39 Democratic co-sponsors on the Conyers legislation.
Even proponents are skeptical the bill will go anywhere.
Bellamy said that in addition to pushing for congressional action, the ACLU is trying to get Obama to work around Congress.
“Right now what needs to happen is the Department of Justice needs to recognize that it is within the authority of the Obama administration to release guidance on racial profiling that includes a ban,” Bellamy said.