The Obama administration issued guidelines Monday that ban federal law enforcement from profiling on the basis of religion, national origin and other characteristics, protocols the Justice Department hopes could be a model for local departments as the nation tackles questions about the role race plays in policing.
The policy, which replaces decade-old guidelines established under the Bush administration, also will 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.
Though the guidelines — five years in the making — were not drafted in response to recent high-profile cases involving the deaths of black individuals at the hands of white police officers, they’re nonetheless 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 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 a man in New York City.
Local grand juries declined to indict either officer. The Justice Department is investigating both cases.
The guidelines cover federal agencies within the Justice Department, including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They also extend to local and state officers serving on joint task forces alongside federal agents.
The new rules were 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 if they’ve received specific information linking a person of that characteristic to a particular crime or security threat.
Their practical impact remains to be seen, especially since local police officers are the ones primarily responsible for traffic stops, 911 calls and day-to-day interactions with the communities they patrol. But the Obama administration envisions the rules as a possible roadmap for local police, with Holder encouraging local law enforcement officials to adopt the federal guidelines.
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 guidelines extend 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 border investigations and by failing to extend the ban to characteristics beyond race and ethnicity.
The new guidelines would end the carve-out on national security and border investigations and widen the profiling ban to prohibit the practice on the basis of religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Some advocacy groups for minority communities said the new guidelines didn’t go far enough. Muslim Advocates, a national organization, noted that federal law enforcement would still be permitted to “map communities based on race, ethnicity or religion.”
“You can’t be against profiling in some contexts but for it in other contexts,” Rajdeep Singh, policy director of the Sikh Coalition.
The new protocols allow for significant exemptions, including for Homeland Security officials who screen passengers at airports and do inspections at the border. Homeland Security officials argued for the exemptions on the basis of what they said was “the unique nature of border and transportation security as compared to traditional law enforcement.”
“This does not mean that officers and agents are free to profile,” the department said in a statement. “To the contrary, DHS’ existing policies make it categorically clear that profiling is prohibited,” while allowing for limited circumstances in which race, ethnicity and other characteristics could be considered.
The American Civil Liberties Union objected to those exemptions.
“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 victimized and alienated American Muslim and other minority communities,” Laura W. 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.”
The department said other activities, such as civil immigration enforcement and Coast Guard law enforcement actions, would still be covered.
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