The Department of Justice announced Monday that Attorney General Eric Holder has unveiled stricter policies governing federal law enforcement when it comes to the use of racial profiling. The announcement comes less than a week after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner and two weeks after a St. Louis County grand jury said no charges would be pressed against former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. While the new policies will not affect local or state law enforcement agencies, Holder will contact local police leaders and advise that they also adopt these new policies.
The Department of Justice released a statement Monday announcing the new policies. The statement included the following quote from Eric Holder:
“As Attorney General, I have repeatedly made clear that racial profiling by law enforcement is not only wrong, it is misguided and ineffective – because it can mistakenly focus investigative efforts, waste precious resources and, ultimately, undermine the public trust. Particularly in light of recent incidents we’ve seen at the local level – and the 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 sound, fair and strong policing practices.”
The Attorney General added: “With this new Guidance, we take a major and important step forward to ensure effective policing by federal law enforcement officials – as well as state and local law enforcement participating in federal task forces throughout the nation. This Guidance is the product of five years of scrupulous review. It codifies important new protections for those who come into contact with federal law enforcement agents and their partners. And it brings enhanced training, oversight, and accountability to federal law enforcement across the country, so that isolated acts do not tarnish the exemplary work that’s performed by the overwhelming majority of America’s hard-working law enforcement officials each and every day.”
Holder has been working to eradicate the use of racial profiling in law enforcement since he came on as Attorney General nearly six years ago. With his announcing that he will resign once his replacement has been confirmed, and a number of high-profile cases involving white police officers killing people of color, a sense of urgency took over in his office to get the new policies implemented.
Starting in 2003, federal agents had been banned from targeting potential suspects based purely on race and ethnicity. However, the law was broad and still allowed law enforcement officials to specifically target minorities while technically adhering to the law. Per the DOJ’s statement, unless applying specifically to a known suspect’s description, federal agents cannot randomly stop or detain a person based solely on personal characteristics.
The new policy, which is spelled out in a memorandum circulated Monday, instructs that, in making routine or spontaneous law enforcement decisions, officers may not use race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity to any degree, unless listed characteristics apply to a suspect description. Under the policy, federal law enforcement officers will be prohibited from acting on the belief that possession of a listed characteristic by itself signals a higher risk of criminality.
This is definitely a step in the right direction when it comes to law enforcement respecting people of all races, ethnicities and genders, while also providing specific guidelines for officers. However, while the guidelines have now been put in place, and the issue is truly being addressed on a federal level, it is still up to officers to truly carry them out. Darrius Charney, a constitutional lawyer in New York, spoke to MSNBC about the application of the new rules.
“What’s going to happen next is that the different agencies that are covered by the guidance are going to have to train their officers and their agents on the new guidance,” said Darius Charney, a staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York.
Charney said while the overall guidance should be applauded he said its limitations are concerning, including that it does not include agents conducting border security or airport screenings.
But there’s also the matter of the guidance translating from policy to practice.
“That’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question,” Charney said not long after the new guidance was announced.
“We know that the policy on paper is often very different from how police officers behave on the street,” Charney said. “That is the question we do not know the answer to just yet. Are federal agents going to comply with this guidance and if not how will it be enforced?”
Meanwhile, protests in response to both the Garner and Brown grand jury decisions continue throughout the nation. While the majority of protests have been calm and solemn, some demonstrations in California led to property damage over the weekend.