WASHINGTON -- Hoping to seize on the renewed national debate over race and discrimination following the trial of George Zimmerman, two Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday introduced legislation that would seek to end racial profiling at the hands of law enforcement.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) banded together for a second time to announce companion versions of the End Racial Profiling Act of 2013, legislation they had previously pushed in 2011 and that appeared before Congress in 2001, 2004 and 2007 as well. The legislation would attack racial profiling by several means, including mandating training for federal law enforcement officials on racial profiling issues, submitting data on all routine and spontaneous investigatory activities to the Department of Justice, providing Justice Department grants for the development and implementation of protocols that discourage profiling, and requiring the attorney general to make periodic reports assessing the nature of any ongoing discriminatory profiling practices.
All 15 co-sponsors on the Senate bill are Democrats: Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), and Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Christopher Coons (Del.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Tom Harkin (Iowa), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), Carl Levin (Mich.), Robert Menendez (N.J.), Barbara Mikulski (Md.), Christopher Murphy (Conn.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.). There are a total of 39 co-sponsors on the House version, also all Democrats. A spokesman for Conyers said previous Republican backers had either retired or lost their reelections, but his office was in the process of reaching out to current members of the House GOP who might be interested.
Conyers pointed to the public outcry over Zimmerman's acquittal in the 2012 shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin as reason to revisit the effort. Speaking at a press conference to announce the legislation, the veteran congressman said that although Martin's death was not the result of a law enforcement encounter, the question of whether the Florida teen was a victim of racial bias "cannot be separated from the enforcement profiling debate."
"Ultimately, Trayvon is one of too many individuals across the country who have been victimized by a perception of criminality simply because of their race, ethnicity, religion or national origin," Conyers said. "These individuals are denied the basic respect and equal treatment that is the right of every American."
Cardin said the vast majority of law enforcement officers perform their jobs with "professionalism" and "diligence," but noted that racial profiling remains legal in far too many states.
"Racial profiling is simply wrong," he said. "It doesn't work, it wastes valuable resources and diminishes the willingness of targeted communities from trusting and working with police when the need is real."
This latest version of the End Racial Profiling Act is the first piece of legislation to be introduced in Congress as a direct response to the Zimmerman verdict. So far, congressional lawmakers have primarily focused on broad discussions of racial profiling, including the first-ever meeting of the Congressional Caucus on Black Men and Boys -- at which Martin's father, Tracy Martin, was a guest of honor -- and a scheduled September hearing on controversial Stand Your Ground laws before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.
Public opinion about the Zimmerman verdict, the justice system and race is largely divided across racial lines, a HuffPost/YouGov poll recently showed. Seventy-five percent of black respondents said they would have found Zimmerman guilty of a crime, whereas only 34 percent of white respondents said the same.
What could help propel the End Racial Profiling Act to passage this go-around is the backing of more than 130 national, state and local civil and legal rights organizations, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, the Rights Working Group, the American Civil Liberties Union, Blacks in Law Enforcement of America and the Sikh Coalition. Many of these groups are working to keep the nation's attention on Martin's death and its implications for race relations across the country.
Conyers acknowledged that it would be an uphill battle to enact meaningful reform on racial profiling, an issue that has proved divisive.
"We should be clear, however, that legislation, like ERPA, can only go so far," Conyers said. "Consider this legislation the starting point for societal change."
Read the Full Text of the End Racial Profiling Act 2013:
End Racial Profiling Act 2013