WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate has been looking at racial profiling by law enforcement since early 2001 when then-President George W. Bush called for its end, and then immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks when many Arab-Americans and American Muslims were targeted by the practice.
A decade later, the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin has renewed focus on the consequences of racial profiling not just for the young black men who are often its target, but for the effect it has on illegal immigration and air travel.
The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights invited several members of Congress — mostly from minority groups — on Tuesday to testify about problems with racial profiling in their communities. Among those testifying were Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, who represented Martin in Congress, and who told the committee that his death affected her personally.
Martin died Feb. 26 when George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in the gated community where the high school junior was staying, spotted the hooded teen walking slowly in the rain and called the police. Last week, Zimmerman was arrested and charged with second-degree murder, but only after a national outcry and intense pressure from Martin's parents and their legal team.
"I have buried so many young black boys — it is extremely traumatizing for me," she said. "Black boys and men are valuable to society. They should not be profiled or shot dead for no reason."
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the committee's chairman, called racial profiling "un-American" and asked fellow senators to pass legislation sponsored by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., that would prohibit the practice by federal, state and local law enforcement.
"Racial profiling undermines the rule of law and strikes at the core of our nation's commitment to equal protection for all," Durbin said.
Some law enforcement organizations including the National Fraternal Order of Police, oppose the anti-profiling legislation, saying it does little to address the real problem: bad policing.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he had concerns about it, too. He said he fears some of the anti-profiling legislation would "unilaterally disarm" some law enforcement agencies' efforts to fight homegrown terrorism.
But Ronald Davis, the chief of the East Palo Alto, Calif., Police Department, said there are plenty of ways for law enforcement to rely on their smarts and not "bias and sloppy guesswork to secure the nation." Race is merely a descriptor, he said, and not a predictor.
"If something comes over the radio that you're looking for a black male, 6-foot tall, 225 pounds and handsome that did the robbery, then it would make sense you would stop me," he said, offering a humorous description of himself.
Durbin and the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., sent a letter to the Justice Department signed by 63 other members of Congress asking for the agency to close some of the loopholes in its racial profiling guidance.
After the hearing, Wilson said she would take advantage of any conversation where she could discuss racial profiling. If anything, she said, it might lead to the repeal in Florida and other states of the controversial "stand your ground" law that's likely to figure in Zimmerman's defense.
"We know it's not going to happen overnight," Wilson said. "But we have to have some conversations."