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Racial Profiling: Issues and Federal Legislative Proposals

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In recent years, racial profiling has drawn the attention of state and federal governments. In this report, racial profiling is defined as the practice of targeting individuals for police or security interdiction, detention, or other disparate treatment based primarily on their race or ethnicity, in the belief that certain minority groups are more likely to engage in unlawful behavior. Assertions that law enforcement personnel at all levels unfairly target certain racial and ethnic groups, particularly but not exclusively for traffic stops and searches, have raised concerns about violations of the Constitution. Major debate on racial profiling centers on whether the practice should be prohibited entirely and whether data on traffic stops and searches should be collected to determine if the practice is occurring.

This report analyzes the debate and focuses on legislative proposals on racial profiling before Congress. Two bills relating to racial profiling, H.R. 2364 (Title II) and S. 16 (Title V) have been introduced in the 108th Congress and have been referred to their respective committees of jurisdiction. Also, this report analyzes legislative proposals in the 107th Congress (H.R. 905, H.R. 1407, H.R. 1778, H.R. 1996, H.R. 2074/S. 989, S. 19, S. 799, and S. 2114). They were varied and included provisions that would have: defined racial profiling, prohibited the practice, required a study of statistical data and/or a report of traffic stops, set data collection standards, established penalties for noncompliance, furnished funding for grants, provided for education and training, and held law enforcement personnel legally accountable for engaging in racial profiling. Both the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Federalism and Property Rights and the House Committee on Government Reform held hearings on racial profiling during the 107th Congress.

There has been some recent presidential involvement on the issue of racial profiling. On June 18, 2003, President George W. Bush issued guidelines to bar federal agents from using race or ethnicity in routine investigations. The guidelines, however, exempt investigations of terrorism and other national security concerns. In 2001, the President instructed the Attorney General to review the role of race in the decision of federal law enforcement authorities to conduct stops and searches, to work with Congress on procedures for data collection, and to cooperate with state and local law enforcement to assess the extent and content of those procedures. Two federal agencies, the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the General Accounting Office, have researched and published their findings on aspects of racial profiling.

The major recommendations for determining if racial profiling is occurring are to collect data on stops and searches by law enforcement officers and to use technology as an aid in detecting the practice. The collection of data is controversial, leading to questions about what to collect, how to collect it, who is to analyze it, where the data would be housed and for how long, what the collection of statistics would accomplish, and whether its collection is an invasion of privacy. This report will be updated when legislative activity occurs.