THE BLOG
12/09/2014 04:00 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

Comprehensive National Policy That Outlaws Racial Profiling Should Cover State, Local Police

Anthony Saffery via Getty Images

Racial profiling continues to plague our nation despite the constitutional guarantee of equal treatment under the law. Likewise, excessive force by police persists despite the Constitution's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.

Whatever else we have learned from the recent tragedies of police violence, it is clear that we need a comprehensive national policy that outlaws racial profiling in order to rein in police violence, harassment and other misconduct.

Such profiling undermines public safety by straining police-community trust. When law enforcement officers target community members, or treat them more aggressively, on account of race, they are less effective at fighting crime because they are targeting innocent people instead of criminal suspects. It's ineffective and counterproductive.

To root out racial profiling, we need stronger policies at the state and local levels, as well as more effective training and oversight of police officers. State-level policies vary widely. In fact, a recent September 2014 report from the NAACP titled "Born Suspect" found 20 out of the 50 states do not have laws that prohibit racial profiling by law enforcement. Only 17 states require data collection on all police stops and searches, and only 15 require analysis and publication of other racial profiling data. Remedies for racial profiling incidents also vary from state to state.

Back in 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice adopted a policy titled "Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies," which was an important first step in training law enforcement agencies to eliminate illegitimate uses of race in policing. That policy, however, had significant limitations and had not been updated despite advocacy by civil rights groups.

In 2012, more than 200 civil rights groups asked Attorney General Eric Holder to update the policy to, among other things, prohibit profiling on the basis of national origin, religion, gender and sexual identity. They also called for elimination of loopholes for national security and border enforcement, the creation of enforceable standards, and for it to apply to all state and local law enforcement agencies that receive federal funds or work with federal agencies.

Just recently, the attorney general finally did propose new guidelines on racial profiling that bans the practice by federal law enforcement agencies. This is a good first step, but the updated policy should have included the research-based proposals made by civil rights advocates. State and local law enforcement agencies should have also been covered in the proposal because Americans encounter local police in far greater numbers than any federal law enforcement officers. While racial profiling can end in tragic police killings of unarmed individuals, such as with Eric Garner or Michael Brown, profiling more often results in unnecessary stops and searches, harassment and intimidation, and even confiscation of cash or vehicles without due process.

If we have learned anything from the recent tragic deaths of Garner and Brown, as well as the experiences of numerous other African American victims of police violence going back decades -- from Rodney King to Abner Louima to Amadou Diallo and Tamir Rice -- it is that excessive force and racial profiling are two destructive modes of police misconduct that require concerted, vigilant action to reduce and eliminate.

We have constitutional protections. We have promises from governors and police departments to root out racial profiling from police practices. Nevertheless, we continue to have cases of police racial profiling and excessive force. The time is now for the federal government to make clear that racial profiling is ineffective, harmful and undermines our democratic values, and to set the standards on bias-free policing for all of our nation's law enforcement agencies.