In many states, including Maryland, law enforcement is prohibited from using racial profiling—targeting a person based on traits such as race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation—when making traffic stops, and racial profiling guidelines typically seem to be enacted on a state or municipal level. (Incidentally, a federal law to prohibit racial profiling was introduced in 2013 but failed to pass. In April of this year Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) introduced the End Racial Profiling Act of 2015, and in May it was referred to the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations.)
On Tuesday, Maryland became the first state to adopt and implement new guidelines set by the Justice Department to restrict officers from racial profiling, adding national origin, identity, disability, and religion as traits that should not raise officers’ suspicion when they are “conducting routine police activity,” which includes traffic stops, investigations, and other police work. If police have credible information that such details are relevant to a criminal investigation, then those considerations could be legal. The hope is that the new guidelines will deter officers from initially approaching minority groups as criminal suspects.
The need for stricter regulations has become increasingly more apparent since the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Just last December, Maryland state police were ordered by a Baltimore County judge to pay 600,000 dollars for legal fees incurred by civil liberties groups representing victims of racial profiling. And earlier this year, Freddie Gray tragically lost his life after being arrested and injured on transport, an arrest that was criticized as yet another case of racial profiling.
The Black Lives Matter movement has put pressure on lawmakers to crack down on racial injustice. The recent trend of media reports of police officers injuring or killing unarmed black men has enlightened many Americans to often overlooked racial tensions that continue to exist in the United States. Since Martin’s death, there have been at least sixteen needless police killings of black men and women. In each of those cases, it is likely that, had they not have been black, they would most likely not be dead. In fact, if they weren’t black, they probably would not have even been approached or treated with any aggression in the first place.
It isn’t surprising that Maryland would be the first to adopt the new regulations since it is a state that has historically been progressive when it comes to such issues like capital punishment. But there are many who believe the new regulations won’t work. There are thirty states, including Maryland, that already have laws banning racial profiling in place, yet it continues to occur. The problem isn’t that the laws don’t exist, it’s that they aren’t enforced or they are difficult to enforce.
So, will these guidelines stop racial profiling? Most likely not completely, but I suspect it will deter some officers from discriminating in the field. I would expect many states to implement the new restrictions without dispute. After all, will these restrictions affect what they do in practice? Putting the new restrictions into practice may sound swell, but how well will these officers continue to be monitored? If an officer has a habit of arresting mostly people of color, will these new regulations stop them, or will officers simply come up with more acceptable excuses? No, the regulations may not stop profiling, however, it is necessary to show officers that the problem doesn’t go unnoticed, and they are being watched. Perhaps a little paranoia will discourage them.