Racial Profiling Bill Gets Another Chance Because of Trayvon Martin

Rep. John Conyers and Sen. Ben Cardin renew effort to stop racial profiling.

Tracy Martin, father of slain 17-year old Trayvon Martin, left arrives to attend a Congressional Caucus on Black Men and Boys forum Wednesday, July 24, 2013, on Capitol Hill Washington D.C.

Trayvon Martin's father Tracy arrives at a Congressional Caucus on Black Men and Boys forum Wednesday, July 24, 2013, on Capitol Hill. Rep. Conyers, D-Mich., introduced the End Racial Profiling Act Tuesday, July 30, 2013, alongside longtime supporter Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.

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Democrats in Congress hope the Travyon Martin tragedy can help them accomplish something they have worked on for years to no avail: an end to racial profiling.

"Trayvon is one of too many individuals across the country who have been victimized by a perception of criminality simply because of their race, ethnicity, religion or national origin. These individuals are denied the basic respect and equal treatment that is the right of every American," says Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who is sponsoring the End Racial Profiling Act.

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Congress is using the lessons of the Martin case to push for legislation that would make it illegal for law enforcement agencies to profile individuals as criminals on a basis of the skin color or religious practice. Law enforcement agencies that rely on federal government funding would be required to show they did not use racial profiling in their agency.

Conyers introduced the End Racial Profiling Act Tuesday alongside longtime supporter Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill.

Aside from banning racial profiling, the bill seeks to strengthen law enforcement training to ensure officers are basing their patrols and apprehensions based on behavior not skin color.

But Martin, 17, was not killed by a law enforcement agent, rather he was shot by night watchman George Zimmerman who said he was forced to use his gun in self defense. Zimmerman was charged with Martin's death, but after a lengthy trial, the jury found him not guilty.

[READ: Trayvon Martin’s Mother Says ‘Stand Your Ground’ Killed Her Son]

"Though the death of Trayvon Martin was not the result of a law enforcement encounter, the issues of race and reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct are so closely linked in the minds of the public that his death cannot be separated from the law enforcement profiling debate," Conyers says.

 

Democrats on Capitol Hill are building on the groundswell of outrage Martin's death generated. They are hoping the debate about race in America may help them rally support for legislation that has been introduced in Congress every year since 2001, but has never made it out of committee for a vote on the floor.

Watchdog groups like the American Civil Liberties Union are also more optimistic now that the The White House has signaled it is willing to engage on the issue. Groups point to President Barack Obama's impromptu speech earlier in July when he told reporters that 35 years ago, he could have been Trayvon Martin. The president and Attorney General Eric Holder have been unusually outspoken about their concerns over how black men in America are perceived and treated.

"Now is the right time for them to do something about racial profiling," says Jennifer Bellamy, legislative council for the ACLU. "The federal government has the ability to stop racial profiling and the Obama administration should act now."

[POLL: Nearly 1 in 4 Black Men Say Police Treated Them Unfairly]

Aside from passage of the End Racial Profiling Act, the Obama administration could use its authority to authorize an all-out-ban on racial profiling by reforming the Department of Justice's guidance on the use of race by law enforcement officers.

Martin's death, however, is not the only example Democrats in Congress are pointing to in an effort to build support for their bill. Many say that laws throughout the U.S. incentivize racial profiling including New York City's controversial stop and frisk policy.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, while Latinos and blacks make up 23 and 29 percent of the population respectively, but they account for 84 percent of the individuals stopped under the "stop and frisk program," which allows police to stop and search anyone they are suspicious might be engaging in a crime. 

In Arizona, while a controversial immigration bill was gutted by the Supreme Court, a contentious policy still allows local police to stop vehicles and ask for documentation of residency.