Posted by on April 17, 2012 in Blog

By Danielle Malaty

Yesterday, Margaret Huang, executive director of Rights Working Group, appeared on the Diane Rehm show to talk about racial profiling and the End Racial Profiling Act. The show provided a great opportunity to discuss racial profiling and the need for federal action and leadership on racial profiling at the start of National End Racial Profiling Advocacy Week. Ms. Rehm’s guests included attorney Billy Martin of Martin and Gitner; Ronald Hampton, Washington Representative of Blacks in Law Enforcement of America and retired Metropolitan Police Department; Executive Director of Rights Working Group Margaret Huang; and Michael Dougherty, the Director of the Decision, Attention, and Memory Lab at the University of Maryland.

The show began with a brief summary of what transpired the fateful day Trayvon Martin was gunned down and killed: “Zimmerman felt Martin did not belong in the gated community. He was profiled.”

When Diane asked the panel what it means to profile, Margaret Huang explained that racial profiling occurs when a police officer or other law enforcement officer makes the decision about whom to question, stop, arrest, spy on, investigate, or place under surveillance based on race, religion, national origin, or ethnicity. She went on to say that Zimmerman wasn’t the only person that day to racially profile Trayvon, he was simply the first. When the police arrived at the scene of the murder, they chose to not conduct an investigation; they took the word of the man with a gun and presumed that the black young man lying dead on the asphalt had in fact done something illegal.

Zimmerman, a civilian, was acting within the scope of a neighborhood watch agent. He was not authorized to use force or to even be in possession of a firearm. The state of Florida does not permit civilians acting within the scope of neighborhood watch agents, also known as agents of the police, to carry firearms. Neighborhood watches are agents of the police but they are exclusively agents of surveillance. In every state in our union, neighborhood watch agents trained by police officers or other law enforcement officers are required by law to disengage and not intervene once they have notified the authorities of the suspicious behavior. The onus is placed on the police and removed entirely from the control of the neighborhood watch agent. Zimmerman disobeyed orders to desist. He not only continued his pursuit of Trayvon through the gated community – he accelerated it. 

The conversation moved to the behavior of the police that day and their decision to not conduct a complete and thorough investigation. Panelist and Former Metropolitan Police officer Ronald Hampton explained that police officer training and law enforcement agent training is intended to equip their students with the sound mind and balanced judgment to make decisions that are objective, educated, and based on hard facts. Split decisions are indeed made but they’re ideally based on knowledge acquired in instances that are similar.

Former officer Hampton shared a story about an encounter he had with a fellow police officer while he was off duty. After a long day on patrol, he changed out of his patrol uniform shirt, but kept his weapon strapped in. Driving within the speed limit in his brand new white Cadillac, he was pulled over. The police officer asked him to show his license, and Hampton asked for the reason he was pulled over. After a significant amount of time passed without being told why he was pulled over, Officer Hampton asked the police officer again, “aren’t you supposed to tell me why I’m being pulled over?” To which the police officer responded “are you a police officer too?” He said he was and then asked the officer “why do I have to tell you that I am a police officer in order for you to do your job correctly?” Mr. Hampton explained that these basic requirements that a police officer must abide by are in what is referred to as the police bible, formally known as General Orders. Mr. Hampton lamented that this particular officer was conditioned to stereotype, as are many law enforcement agents.

The panel then began a conversation on Senator Durbin’s hearing on April 17th on the Ending Racial Profiling in America Act that was introduced in the summer or 2001, but halted due to the events that transpired on September 11th of the same year. Since then, public polls indicated that the public stopped supporting the ban. Margaret Huang explained that experts have indeed always believed that racial profiling is objectively ineffective, but that public opinion continues to waver back and forth.

Ms. Rehm posed a thought-provoking question to the panel: how is it possible that we as a country need to have a hearing on banning something that’s already illegal and unconstitutional? Margaret Huang from Rights Working Group answered Ms. Rehm by explaining how difficult it is to make a case against law enforcement when they racially profile. She explained that the ban that would be put in place upon the passage or ERPA would require law enforcement to adopt very clear policies against the practice, collect factually-based data to establish whether they’re complying with the legislation and operating within the scope of it. ERPA would furthermore provide grants to law enforcement agencies and academies to make sure best practices are being implemented and training is being improved upon.

Ms. Huang then shifted the conversation onto Arizona’s immigration law, which is the first of six states to enact legislation which entitles the police to ask for papers from anyone whom an officer reasonably suspects to be undocumented.  Ms. Huang asked the question: “If [polices officers] are profiling, what exactly does it mean?” Paraphrasing the Governor of Arizona, she jokingly answered herself and explained “It means that they look at [individuals] and they can see.” Ms. Rehm asked Ms. Huang “What are they looking at?” She responded by explaining that the Arizona police officers are given no guidance, because they cannot really define what signs they are to look for. She put the onus on the legislators for being unclear to the Arizona police officers.

The show was concluded by opening the panel up to questions from the public. A young man called in and explained that it was “irresponsible” for someone to dress themselves in a way in which our society has “glamourized as thug-like” and not expect themselves to be stereotyped or suspected. Mr. Hampton, noticeably disturbed by the caller’s statement, interjected by proclaiming “this is the United States of America, you can wear whatever you want.”

Echoing Mr. Hampton, Mr. Martin explained that the premise of suspicion must be based on behavior—not apparel. He described it to be “unbelievable” that law enforcement officers are drawing conclusions on how people dress. Attire doesn’t justify profiling. Behavioral patterns should be the focus of law enforcement. Officers must be trained to investigate beyond these trigger reactions we have to outward appearances. Ms. Huang agreed by reminding the panel that the police officers in the Trayvon Martin case did their own profiling by deciding to not arrest Zimmerman.

This panel of experts touched upon several points that hit home to the Arab American and American Muslim communities. Zimmerman is a chilling example of an individual who took his legally-mandated position of authority as a neighborhood watch agent and used it beyond the scope of his legal right. Zimmerman was trained by law enforcement officers to be an agent of surveillance, but apparently not trained to be objective, factually driven, and unbiased. Tragedies such as the killing of Trayvon Martin serve as a reminder of the culture of bias and deeply engendered attitude of using appearances as a fundamental source of suspicion in our law enforcement system and in our society at large. It would appear, as far as Zimmerman was concerned, that dark skin and a hoodie reflected suspiciousness. This should be troubling to all of us as Americans. Who’s to say whether the next Trayvon story we hear will involve a woman with a hijab at the grocery store, or a young Muslim man with a beard at a stop light? The End Racial Profiling Act must be passed if we are to regain any semblance of commitment to our Constitution and the principles of our founding fathers. Our country, founded by immigrants and for immigrants, has deviated too far from this commitment. It’s time to return. It’s time for our lawmakers to come back to the Bill of Rights, for our sake and for the sake of our future as a country of immigrants. 

comments powered by Disqus