March 2, 2001

Ashcroft Discusses Racial Profiling Issue

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft held a press conference yesterday at the Justice Department to express his intolerance for racial profiling among state and local law enforcement officials. He outlined a two-component plan to combat racial profiling, in response to a directive from President George W. Bush on Tuesday.

“I have long believed that to treat people based solely on their race is in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution,” Ashcroft said in his opening remarks.

The Attorney General noted that he originally discussed this issue of “mutual concern” with the President shortly after Ashcroft received his offer to serve as the head of the Justice Department. He explained that the President seeks to combat racial profiling in a way that respects the law enforcement responsibilities of states and localities.

Bush issued a memorandum to Ashcroft on Tuesday directing him to “review the use by federal law enforcement authorities of race as a factor in conducting stops, searches and other investigative procedures.”

In addition, Bush asked Ashcroft to work with the Congress to “develop methods or mechanisms to collect any relevant data from federal law enforcement agencies and work in cooperation with state and local law enforcement in order to assess the extent and nature of any such practices.”

Ashcroft discussed a letter he sent to the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Committees indicating his desire to work with them over the next six months to produce a “legislative product” aimed at achieving the President’s directive.

Ashcroft hopes to achieve legislation that will resemble a measure from Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) from last year concerning traffic stops.

“I believe the Congress can and will respond constructively, and I will work with them to make sure they respond constructively,” Ashcroft said.

Should Congress fail to produce new legislative measures addressing racial profiling within the next six months, Ashcroft vowed to launch a study of his own. He fervently reiterated his belief that ending racial profiling is a task the federal government should move quickly on.

When asked why he felt it necessary to wait six months for congressional action, Ashcroft replied that he believes there are steps the government must take legislatively.

“I think moving with the Congress, which has indicated a willingness, is the right way to do this,” he said.

However, he stressed that while legislative action can produce benefits, they are not benefits “worth waiting for indefinitely.” Secondly, Ashcroft said that he would release a four-component directive to Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder next week on implementing Bush’s memorandum.

“I believe that these are a series of first steps to implement the directive of the President of the United States in an effort to assuage what I consider to be an important challenge of our culture,” Ashcroft said.

He stressed that any culture must make effective law enforcement one of its primary goals. Law enforcement rests on foundations of trust between officials and citizens. Racial profiling erodes those foundations irrevocably, Ashcroft explained.

“But in those cases, regardless of how rarely it might be where the law enforcement institution [violates rights], you have a compound fracture. You disrupt the trust which inflicts an injury at the same time,” he said.

Racial profiling creates a “lose-lose” situation, according to Ashcroft, since it destroys the potential for underlying trust that “should support the administration of justice as a societal objective, not just as a law enforcement objective.”

Ashcroft did not explicitly say if racial profiling violated existing civil rights laws. He also acknowledged that he does not know how extensively law enforcement officials use racial profiling.

“That’s the purpose of the President’s directive to me, to try and develop an understanding of the nature and extent, and then based on what we learned, to act appropriately to irradicate it.”

However, Ashcroft stressed his high regard for the United States law enforcement community.

“I believe it is populated by individuals who are literally making sacrificial devotions of their lives to achieve an objective in which they believe, a secure society in which the persons and property of individuals are guarded.”

Ashcroft asserted that law enforcement officials seek to achieve this in a way that is effective and respectful of individual rights. The Department of Justice, he said, has a responsibility to help local law enforcement officials meet the objective of “even, fair, equitable, compassionate law enforcement that elicits the trust and cooperation of the citizens and results in better outcomes.”

Archived article by Ken Meyer