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After Trayvon, Congress Takes Up Racial Profiling


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. For the first time in more than a decade, Congress had a hearing today to consider how to end racial profiling. The practice of targeting people because of their race or religion is at the center of two recent controversies - the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager in Florida, and disclosures that New York police have been surveilling Muslims in schools.

NPR's Carrie Johnson has our story.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: It only takes one tragedy to ignite a community. This year, it was the image of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, shot dead by a neighborhood watchman.

SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN: The senseless death of this innocent young man has been a wake-up call to America.

JOHNSON: Illinois Senator Richard Durbin held the gavel at today's judiciary panel hearing. He pointed out that court papers in the Martin case say the watchman accused of second degree murder...

DURBIN: ...profiled Trayvon Martin and, quote, "assumed Martin was a criminal."

JOHNSON: Lawmakers from both political parties support legislation that would end racial profiling once and for all. The bill would make it clear that police cannot use race, religion or national origin as the basis for making a traffic stop or frisking a suspect. The bill would force police to do training and collect data on those interactions or else lose federal grant money. Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson says profiling is widespread and damaging.

REPRESENTATIVE FREDERICA WILSON: There's a real tension between black boys and the police. If you walk into any inner-city school and ask the students, have you ever been racially profiled, everyone will raise their hands.

JOHNSON: Chief Ronald Davis leads the police force in East Palo Alto, California. Davis is black and, despite 27 years in law enforcement, he says...

RONALD DAVIS: I am still subject to increased scrutiny from the community, from my own profession and from my country because of the color of my skin.

JOHNSON: To use race to describe a person who's running from a crime scene makes sense, police say, but not singling out a person for suspicion only because of their skin color. David Harris studies racial profiling at the University of Pittsburgh Law School.

DAVID HARRIS: The data on this question is unequivocal. It comes from all over the country. When police use race or ethnic appearance or religious appearance this way, they do not become more accurate.

JOHNSON: In fact, Harris says, they become less accurate because they stop focusing on behavior patterns that help lead police to real criminals.

FRANK GALE: It's wrong to think a person a criminal because of the color of their skin, but it's equally wrong to think that a person is a racist because they wear a uniform and a badge.

JOHNSON: That's Frank Gale of the Denver County Sheriff's Department. He says the nation's biggest police group opposes legislation to fix a problem that he says does not belong in Congress or the courts. But conversations about race are touchy, as Roger Clegg of the conservative-leaning Center for Equal Opportunity found out.

ROGER CLEGG: It's going to be tempting for the police and individuals to profile so long as a disproportionate amount of street crime is committed by African-Americans. And there will be a disproportionate amount of street crime committed by African-Americans so long...

JOHNSON: So many spectators gasped and shook their heads that Senator Durbin had to call the room to order. Outside the hearing room, Bonita Rhodesburg(ph) talked about being stopped by drug agents when she got off a red-eye flight in Minnesota. They searched her bag, but she says only found a Bible and pajamas.

BONITA RHODESBURG: On the way home, I started crying. I was so mad. I knew that they had stopped me because I was an African-American and I knew that I had been racially profiled.

JOHNSON: She says she sued and won a settlement, but flying, she says, has never been the same. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.