12/17/2011 10:22 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2012

Racial Profiling After September 11th

Prior to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the law enforcement profession in America was reeling over allegations of racial profiling. Long before the attacks, the successful case against the New Jersey State Police, where it was determined that they were using race as a condition for traffic stops, police contacts, detentions and arrests, in violation of the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment, primarily on the New Jersey turnpike, had the profession re-evaluating its practices regarding these law enforcement activities. States and local jurisdictions across the country were looking at "driving while black" or "driving while brown" allegations and in some, data collection on traffic stops, police contacts, detentions and arrests were being mandated of their law enforcement departments, including the City of Sacramento, where I was police chief at the time.

Then September 11th happened and many Americans, including those that were previously demanding a stop to racial profiling or calling for data collection, now were willing to accept profiling of people who might look like "Middle Eastern Terrorists." Some people were willing to trade in their constitutional protections for what they perceived as their safety and security.

In the years since, my hope has been that we have begun to move past these fears and back to a society that values our freedoms and the rights of all individuals. However, in my work at the Law Enforcement Engagement Initiative, working to educate and engage law enforcement executives and the public in a sensible dialogue on immigration, I am often reminded of just how widespread the ignorance is, from public officials to those of us who elect them, of the basic rights and protections provided to us by our Constitution and the laws of the land.

Late last month in testifying before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement, the chair, Congressman Elton Gallegly (R-CA), introduced the panel, and his introduction of me gave a general description of my background, including the fact that I had been a Chief of Police and veteran of the Vietnam war. Not mentioned, which was included in the bio sent to the committee, was that I was also an immigrant from Mexico. When it came time for my turn to speak, I mentioned that I was probably the only immigrant on the panel. Congressman Steve King (R-IA) asked what inspired me to come to the United States and what kind of visa I had received. At ten years old, I had not known or cared what kind of visa I had. What inspired my family to come to America, home of my American-born mother, was undoubtedly the same inspiration that his ancestors also had for coming to America - a better life.

Being questioned about my immigration status while testifying before Congress was certainly an insult, but what happened afterward was actually more disturbing to me. Rep. King made a comment that Congress has never acted on the issue of racial profiling and asked the panel starting with me, if we knew of any laws that prohibited racial profiling because he did not. In my response I stated that we had the Constitution of the United States, specifically the 4th and 14th Amendments and the Civil Rights Act. Then, each of the other panelists went on to say they either didn't know of any racial profiling law either or could not answer the question.

The U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, just sent a letter to all law enforcement agencies in the state of Alabama, where the nation's harshest immigration law recently went into effect, cautioning them about the behavior that could lead to racial profiling and reminding them that any violation would place in jeopardy any federal funding that these agencies had received. In the letter dated December 2, 2011, to a Sheriff, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez states, "As you undertake law enforcement activity under H.B. 56, it is critical that you develop policies and develop systems of accountability to ensure that your enforcement of this law does not result in the unlawful stopping, questioning, searching, detaining, or arresting of persons in violation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, or in the targeting of racial or ethnic minorities in a manner that violates the Fourteenth Amendment."

The 4th and 5th Amendments, passed by Congress, were ratified on December 15, 1791. The 4th Amendment protects us against unreasonable searches and seizures without a warrant. The 5th Amendment guarantees the right to remain silent and not being deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. The 14th Amendment, also passed by Congress, was ratified on July 9, 1868, guarantees us due process and equal protection. Some people may want to re-write, forget, or deliberately ignore history. It does us all good to know it and learn from it so that we do not have to re-live its tragic lessons.