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New U.S. Guidelines Curb Racial Profiling

The rules are lauded by federal officials, but an ACLU officer calls them 'toothless.'

June 18, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department, implementing a 2-year-old directive from President Bush, issued new guidelines Tuesday that restrict the use of race or ethnicity as an investigative tool by federal law enforcement personnel.

The guidelines, which take effect immediately, prohibit federal officers from engaging in the practice of "racial profiling" in making routine or spontaneous law enforcement decisions, such as ordinary traffic stops. However, officers are permitted to consider race or ethnicity where they have "trustworthy information," among other standards.

The guidelines do not apply to cases arising from the government's war on terrorism, which triggered many complaints of profiling from Arab American and other ethnic groups following the Sept. 11 attacks. Justice Department officials have denied they have used race in attempting to root out terror suspects and have said their actions have been lawful.

Nonetheless, officials said the new rules were a milestone, and in some cases go beyond protections against profiling currently afforded citizens under the U.S. Constitution.

"It builds on the efforts our federal law enforcement community has already taken to stop the abuses of a few without hindering the work of our brave officers who protect us every day," Ralph Boyd, assistant attorney general for civil rights, said in a prepared statement.

The extent of illegal racial profiling at the federal level and the potential effect of the new standards are difficult to measure, some academics and civil rights groups said.

Violations of the new policy do not afford victims a right to sue the government; rather, such violations can be used only as grounds for disciplining the offending officer. The policies also do not apply to state or local law enforcement officials, who have been wrestling with the issue in recent years.

"They are toothless," Gregory T. Nojeim, chief legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, said of the guidelines. "They acknowledge racial profiling as a national concern but do nothing do stop it. They provide no rights and no remedies, and ignore racial profiling by state and local law enforcement agencies."

On Tuesday, the department released a study that "did not disclose any basis for concluding that racial profiling is a systemic problem within the federal law-enforcement community," according to the report.

It found that about 300 administrative complaints of racial profiling were reported by the 18 largest federal law enforcement agencies, with the preponderance of claims lodged against the Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, both of which recently were absorbed by the Department of Homeland Security.

The 18 "first-tier" agencies -- including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the INS -- account for 94% of all federal law enforcement officers. About 70 different agencies and 120,000 officers are covered by the new guidelines.

In 2001, the report found, just one case of alleged racial profiling was referred for disciplinary action and six were "closed with corrective action."

In addition, the report found that 25 civil lawsuits alleging racial profiling had been filed against the 18 first-tier agencies in 2000 and 2001.

Racial profiling in recent years has become a major concern among states and localities. In New Jersey, for example, data collected by state police several years ago showed that although 30% of drivers were minorities, 78% of those stopped and searched were minorities. And the Justice Department has entered into settlements covering racial stereotyping by law enforcement with city police departments, among them Los Angeles in June 2001.

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