Just Say No To Racial Profiling

It’s only natural that after the devastating attacks of September 11 on two of the most prominent symbols of modern-day America and the deaths of thousands of innocent people, the American people would demand not only retribution against the guilty but that steps be taken to prevent such horrific crimes from ever happening again.

This response is, to repeat, understandable, and justifiable, and necessary. It’s necessary for the safety of America’s people, and for the safety of the entire global community. The terrorism that showed itself in the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is an extreme form of lawlessness that must be defeated.

As Tom Segev, an Israeli newspaper columnist discussing the Israeli experience in dealing with terrorism, recently wrote in the Washington Post, terrorism “is the main enemy of democratic values and civil liberties.”

But the unavoidable curtailing of some of the conveniences, openness, and even civil liberties we Americans have until now taken for granted are tasks that must be done with the greatest care.

These are tasks that all Americans should rightly regard with the most questioning scrutiny as well, for as Segev went on to warn, “curbs on civil liberties rarely turn out to be temporary, even if intended to be: they are all too easily introduced but very difficult to get rid of.”

That reality is one reason some Americans have questioned and opposed outright certain polices the Bush Administration has proposed that would alter longstanding civil liberties. And it is one reason we at the National Urban League continue to oppose any resort to racial profiling in the effort to determine whether more terrorists of Arabic extraction exist among us.

We have written numerous times before that racial or ethnic or religious profiling is patently unfair in its blunt assertion that the criminal actions of some individuals are all that’s necessary to cast the stigma of suspicion over an entire group.

It is wrong for law enforcement officers and agencies to use racial profiling to unlawfully stop African Americans and Latino Americans who’ve done nothing to indicate they have committed or are about to commit a crime.

And it’s wrong for the federal government to now use the fact of some individuals’ Arabic descent to engage in what one critic called “a fishing expedition” among men of Arabic descent, in this country.

Attorney General John Ashcroft earlier this month said federal officials wanted to question 5,000 men of Middle Eastern descent who had arrived in America within the last two years to determine if they have any information useful to the government’s pursuit of terrorists. Mr. Ashcroft said the questioning would be “voluntary;” but that this idea is deeply problematic quickly became apparent.

As the New York Times reported recently, not only civil libertarians but a number of police chiefs around the country—local police departments would play a major role in identifying men of Arabic descent in their areas—have said the plan raises concerns about racial profiling and civil liberties.

Ken Yarbrough, police chief in Richardson, Texas, a Dallas suburb, said that state law requires officers to have reasonable suspicion to question individuals. Without it, such interviews must be voluntary. “There is going to be some heartburn on the part of police chiefs to take on this role because this is not how we usually do business,” he went on, and wondered what was to happen when those being questioned stopped giving their “consent.”

Andrew Kirkland, the acting chief of the Portland, Oregon police department, said they could not participate because questioning immigrants simply because they are immigrants violates Oregon law. “If the F.B.I. has something specific about a crime they are investigating, or a potential crime that these people might commit, then we would reconsider.”

Charles Wilson, chief of the police department in Detroit, whose metropolitan area has a large Arab-American community that is decades old, was the most blunt in stating his objections. “We’re standing with the fundamental rights of individuals under

the Constitution and the state constitution and our municipal law,” he said, and added that he did not want his officers to “go out and treat people like criminals.”

Other police chiefs do support the Justice Department idea.

Yet to some who remember the recent years of turmoil within law enforcement and in the larger society about police racial profiling it must seem astonishing to hear such objections coming from some leaders of the police community.

But to me it’s a measure of two things.

First, it exemplifies the progress that can occur when that great strength of a democracy—the commitment to civil discourse—is held by two camps with viewpoints that at first glance seem diametrically opposed. More and more police officials are saying that racial or religious or ethnic profiling is not only unfair, it’s not good policing.

Secondly, the willingness of these police officials to speak out offers a trenchant example that thoughtful dissent, even and perhaps especially during a national emergency, is evidence of a powerful commitment to both good policing and national security and to democratic values.

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