New policy widens profiling ban, with key caveats

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Posted: Dec 08, 2014 10:01 PM
New policy widens profiling ban, with key caveats

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration released racial profiling guidelines for federal law enforcement agencies on Monday. The new policy broadens existing decade-old guidance on profiling, but contains significant exceptions that trouble some advocacy groups for minorities.

A closer look at the changes:

Q: What's new in the guidelines?

A: The guidelines direct the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies against profiling on the basis of religion, national origin, gender, gender identity or sexual orientation. They replace 2003 directives from the Bush administration that forbid profiling on the basis of race and ethnicity but created an exception for national security investigations. The new rules close that national security loophole and widen the profiling prohibition to include a broader set of characteristics.

Q. Does that mean federal law enforcement agencies can never take those factors into account?

A. Not quite. The Justice Department says law enforcement officials may still consider those characteristics in certain situations, including while seeking a criminal suspect of a particular physical description. In other words, though U.S. Park Police officers may not indiscriminately stop speeding motorists on the basis of race or gender, they can use those factors to decide whom to pull over if they've been told to be on the lookout for a fleeing bank robbery suspect of a given race or gender.

In other types of federal investigations, agents would be able to factor in a person's race, religion, gender or national origin if they have "trustworthy information" connecting individuals of those characteristics to a specific crime, homeland security that or immigration law violation. That means that if a terrorist group of a particular ethnicity sets off a bomb in a foreign country, the FBI could take ethnicity into account as it cultivates sources in the U.S. for information about the organization.

Q. What other exemptions exist?

A: The primary carve-outs are in airports and at the nation's borders. Security screens by Department of Homeland Security employees in airports and at border checkpoints are exempt from the new protocols, as are interdictions at ports of entry and Secret Service protective activities. The department argued that the "unique nature of border and transportation security as compared to traditional law enforcement" justified the exclusion of those activities.

Q: Are the new rules a response to recent police-involved deaths in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City and Cleveland?

A: No, the protocols are a long-standing priority of Attorney General Eric Holder and have been under contemplation for the last five years. Still, they come in the aftermath of high-profile cases, such as the police shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old in Ferguson, that have stirred concern about the treatment of minorities by law enforcement and about the adequacy of police training. Holder said in announcing the new guidelines that "it's imperative that we take every possible action to institute strong and sound policing practices."

Q. How will this impact day-to-day policing across the country?

A. That's not clear. The guidelines are geared toward federal law enforcement officials from agencies including the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They cover local and state officers — the ones most likely to carry out day-to-day law enforcement in communities — only when they're serving on federal task forces. Still, the Justice Department hopes the guidelines will be a voluntary template for local agencies, and Holder was briefing local law enforcement to encourage them to adopt the federal policy.

Q: What has been the reaction of groups that advocate for ethnic and religious groups, and for minorities?

A: Mixed at best. Though advocates say they're happy with the broadened protections, they're disappointed that the rules don't go further. They say they wish the guidelines were binding on local and state departments, not just federal agencies, and are disappointed with caveats that they say will still allow profiling in certain circumstances. Muslim advocacy groups in particular say they're concerned that the guidelines won't bar the FBI from using neighborhood data on race, ethnicity and religion to recruit informants and develop information about where people of particular backgrounds live.

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