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  • Writer's pictureOrina Ontiri

Obama unveils new curbs on racial profiling in US

Guidelines come amid growing nationwide debate about racial justice and treatment of minorities by law enforcement agencies

People demonstrate in Brooklyn after the decision not to indict a white police officer following the death of Eric Garner. Photograph: Andy Katz/ Andy Katz/Demotix/Corbis

The Obama administration has issued guidelines that ban federal law enforcement agencies from profiling on the basis of religion, national origin and other characteristics, which the justice department hopes could be a model the rest of the US as the country tackles questions about the role race plays in policing.

The policy, which replaces decade-old guidelines established under the Bush administration, will also require federal agencies to provide training and to collect data on complaints.

Civil rights advocates said they welcomed the broader protections, but were disappointed that the guidelines will exempt security screening in airports and border checkpoints and won’t be binding on local and state police agencies.

“It’s so loosely drafted that its exceptions risk swallowing any rule and permit some of the worst law enforcement policies and practices that have victimised and alienated American Muslim and other minority communities,” Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office, said in a statement.

“This guidance is not an adequate response to the crisis of racial profiling in America.”

Though the guidelines were five years in the making and not drafted in response to recent cases involving the deaths of black citizens at the hands of white police officers, they are being released amid an ongoing national conversation about standards for police use of force, racial justice and the treatment of minorities by law enforcement.

“Particularly in light of certain recent incidents we’ve seen at the local level and the widespread concerns about trust in the criminal justice process which so many have raised throughout the nation it’s imperative that we take every possible action to institute strong and sound policing practices,” said the attorney general, Eric Holder, referring to the August shooting by a white police officer of an unarmed black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, and the chokehold death weeks earlier of Eric Garner in New York.

Holder, who has made the release of the guidelines a priority before leaving the justice department next year, called the guidelines a “major and important step forward to ensure effective policing” by federal law enforcement.

The policy extends a ban on routine racial profiling that the justice department announced in 2003 under then-attorney general John Ashcroft. Civil rights groups have long said those rules left open too many loopholes by allowing an exemption for national security and by failing to extend the ban to characteristics beyond race and ethnicity.

The new guidelines would end the carve-out on national security investigations and widen the profiling ban to prohibit the practice on the basis of religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity.

The rules cover federal agencies within the justice department including the FBI. They also extend to local and state officers serving on task forces alongside federal agents. Some activities of the Department of Homeland Security also are covered, such as civil immigration enforcement, but border and airport security screening are exempt along with interdictions at ports of entry.

The policy was laid out in a memo to law enforcement that provides concrete examples of law enforcement actions that would and would not be permissible. The memo makes clear that agents may take race, ethnicity and other factors into account during investigations in limited circumstances. Those include if they’ve received specific information linking a person of that characteristic to a particular crime or threat to homeland security.

Their practical impact remains to be seen, especially since local police officers are those primarily responsible for traffic stops, 911 emergency calls and day-to-day interactions with the communities they patrol. Though not binding on local agencies, the Obama administration views the guidelines as a road map, with Holder encouraging local law enforcement officials to adopt the federal policy.

The administration said it would welcome any decision that’s made by local law enforcement to apply these policies at the state and local level, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Monday. (Guardian)

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