Police in Ferguson, Mo., have created one of the greatest confluences of disastrous law enforcement our nation has seen in decades. And if history is any indicator, it will happen again unless we reform our nation's law-enforcement policies now.
As the tragedies have multiplied—the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown; the deployment of military vehicles and rubber bullets to disperse protesters; the arrests and teargassing of journalists and citizens for exercising their constitutional rights of free assembly and speech—the callous disregard for human dignity displayed by the Ferguson police has raised alarms both nationally and internationally.
Last week, as these tragedies began to unfold, the United Nations was reviewing our nation's compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, also known as CERD. CERD is an international treaty the United States ratified in 1994, formally committing to reduce racial discrimination within our borders. Trayvon Martin's mother and Jordan Davis's father were in Geneva telling their stories of how racial bias in our criminal-justice system contributed to the recent shooting deaths of their children. International experts gathered in Geneva also had many questions about the situation in Ferguson.
This is not the first, second, or even the 10th time that tragedies like those in Ferguson have occurred. In just the few days following the shooting in Ferguson, New Orleans police shot Armand Bennett, an unarmed 26-year-old black man, in the head. On the other side of the country, Los Angeles police fatally shot Ezell Ford, an unarmed 25-year-old black man with a mental disability, three times. These deaths happen regularly and continuously. The majority do not draw the national attention bestowed on Michael Brown or the 1999 New York police shooting of Amadou Diallo, but that alone doesn't make them any less tragic or outrageous.
Police are charged with serving and protecting the community. But as the community reacted to this tragedy with a peaceful demonstration of anguish, the police responded with excessive military-style force—treating the demonstrators as adversaries, not as neighbors. The wrongheaded decision to use tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse peaceful demonstrators, most of whom were people of color, stems from deep and tragic roots that include the 1965 Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Ala.
The lingering and toxic racial disparities that have shaped our society have also distorted our ability to respond to them. If police departments haven't yet learned lessons from Selma or New York City, we must take swift action to write them into law. Racial profiling is an ineffective law-enforcement practice that violates the human rights of the people targeted. There are concrete steps that the Justice Department and Congress can take to outlaw it.
Federal guidance from the Justice Department prohibits some federal law-enforcement officials from engaging in racial profiling some of the time. It does not apply to state and local police, who are more likely to engage in routine law-enforcement activities, such as the traffic and pedestrian stops that have led to recent shootings. The guidance doesn't prohibit profiling on the basis of religion (for instance, policing that targets Muslims and Sikhs), or national origin (for instance, policing that targets Mexicans or people of Middle Eastern descent). The Justice Department's guidance also includes broad and vaguely worded exemptions for "national security" and "border integrity," matters that render it entirely inadequate to protect a broad cross-section of communities.
About five years ago, the Justice Department announced an incremental step toward updating this guidance by creating a working group of various agencies to review these concerns. America is still waiting for the results of this long overdue review.
When the review is released, the Obama administration should act on the working group's recommendations immediately. Congress could pass the End Racial Profiling Act, which would prohibit the use of profiling on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion by all law-enforcement agencies. The bill has been introduced several times by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., but continues to languish without any serious congressional action in either chamber.
We applaud Attorney General Eric Holder for opening an investigation into the shooting. But moving forward, the Justice Department should more proactively exercise its broad jurisdiction to investigate, prosecute, and cut funding to local police forces engaging in excessive use of force.
Here is why: Profiling results in a loss of trust and confidence in law enforcement. In the incidents that claimed the lives of Brown, Bennett, Ford, and Diallo, racial profiling appears to have led to death. Fortunately, there are also proven steps that local law enforcement can take to prevent these tragedies from recurring. For example, local law enforcement can build relationships of trust with residents and hire officers who live in the communities they police.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. History may be repeating itself yet again in Ferguson, but we should do all we can to prevent these tragedies from continuing to occur.
Wade Henderson is the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national civil- and human-rights organizations.
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