During a roundtable conference with civil rights and law enforcement leaders on Wednesday, President Clinton issued an executive order requiring all federal law enforcement agencies to collect race, ethnicity, and gender data on individuals detained for questioning. The order addresses growing concerns in the nation about 'racial profiling' -- the use of race as a basis for stopping and searching individuals. A large percentage of these detainments involve tenuous 'suspicion' about drug-related crimes. Federal agencies including the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Customs Service will now be required to record racial data on all stops and searches and file a report on the results after one year, in order to assess the extent of the racial profiling problem and its possible solutions.
Civil rights activists have long complained about minorities in cars being stopped and searched for DWB or "Driving While Black," and a series of lawsuits and investigations has uncovered evidence of the practice in several states. Law enforcement officials have, until recently, argued that evidence for this practice is purely anecdotal. Clinton, speaking at the Justice Department conference, claimed that gathering and analyzing the racial data for detainments will show a clearer picture of the actual situation.
Clinton also publicly endorsed H.R. 1443, a bill sponsored by Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), that creates a grant and assistance program to encourage state and local law enforcement agencies to also begin collecting data about those they detain. Conyers commended Clinton for the support in a press release, and stressed the importance of bringing an end to racial profiling at all levels of law enforcement. "If the constitutional guarantee of equal protection means anything," he stated in the same release, "it has to mean that it is unacceptable for our citizens to be stopped and searched on account of their race."
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also praised the executive order. Last week, the ACLU released a 43 page report which included recommendations for government action (see http://www.aclu.org/profiling/). The group called the President's announcement "an important first step in ending the national disgrace of racial profiling." However, ACLU Washington Director Laura Murphy also pointed out the need for continued action. "Ultimately," she stated, "what is called for here is a fundamental focus on the civil rights crises created by our criminal justice system."
Rob Stewart, Communications Director for the Drug Policy Foundation, agreed. Stewart mused on the leveling out of drug-related detainments between the races that may result simply from the focus on racial data. "Once a proportionate number of white kids start getting pulled in for suspicion in these [drug-related] crimes, maybe the public will become more sensitive to the way we've been persecuting minorities for years with the uneven enforcement of these laws."
Previous Week Online coverage: