WASHINGTON — While advocates praised Attorney General Eric Holder's Monday announcement of a new effort to collect data about racial bias in the criminal justice system at the state level, the action is not the federal ban on racial profiling that the civil rights community has sought from the Obama administration.
Calling the $4.75 million grant-based effort an "important" and "first" step, American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel Jennifer Bellamy told BuzzFeed "a comprehensive ban on profiling" at the federal level "has been the aim of the civil rights community. … That's what we want to see from the administration because the administration has it within its authority to do that tomorrow."
In a video announcing the Justice Department's new National Center for Building Community Trust and Justice, though, Holder did not address the department's ongoing review of its guidance regarding the use of race by federal law enforcement, instead focusing only on the new center.
"Racial disparities contribute to tension in our nation generally and within communities of color specifically, and tend to breed resentment towards law enforcement that is counterproductive to the goal of reducing crime," Holder said. "As a key part of this initiative, we will work with grant recipients and local law enforcement to collect data about stops and searches, arrests, and case outcomes in order to help assess the impact of possible bias. We will conduct this research while simultaneously implementing strategies in five initial pilot sites with the goal of reducing the role of bias and building confidence in the justice system among young people of color."
Not everyone hit on the ACLU's perceived shortcomings of the announcement on Monday.
"The NAACP applauds the new Justice Department initiative to curb racial profiling by collecting data on police stops and arrests," the NAACP's criminal justice director, Dr. Niaz Kasravi, said in a statement. "Racial profiling is a daily reality for communities of color across the country. This initiative will help us better understand the breadth and depth of this problem, work to reduce disproportionate contact with law enforcement, and ultimately reduce the disparate number of people of color being funneled into the criminal justice system."
The ACLU's Bellamy, however, told BuzzFeed, "[T]here's already really good data out there … we already know that this is a problem."
As to the potential for a federal ban on racial profiling, she noted the ongoing review of the guidance — which dates from John Ashcroft's tenure as attorney general under President George W. Bush — saying that "even while this data collection is happening at the state level, the attorney general should also go ahead and issue a comprehensive ban on profiling at the federal level."
In fact, as recently as April 10, a coalition of civil rights groups — including the NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights — issued a statement pressing for the administration's resolution of the longtime review, stating, "Racial profiling is unlawful and an ineffective law enforcement practice that violates the human rights of the people targeted. It's time for the administration to propose a meaningful update to this policy. We look forward to learning the details of this proposal." (Civil rights groups have been pushing for the change in the guidance for years now.)
A secondary reason — relating to Holder's announcement Monday — that groups have sought the change in the federal guidance, Bellamy said, is that a federal ban would "send a very strong message to the states that this is an inappropriate practice and something that needs to be banned at the state level, too."
Watch Attorney General Holder's announcement:
Chris Geidner is a Supreme Court correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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