n August 2001, the United States appeared poised to end the practice of racial profiling in law enforcement. In his inaugural State of the Union address six months earlier, President George W. Bush had declared “[i]t’s wrong and we will end it in America.” Thirty-five states had passed or were in the process of passing laws addressing it. And Congress was considering an ambitious federal bill – the “End Racial Profiling Act of 2001” – that would have prevented law enforcement from ever using race as a factor in determining whom to stop. Senators Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, John Corzine, the late Ted Kennedy and John Edwards were among 15 Republican and Democratic senators who had co-sponsored the Senate version of the bill. In the House, more than 60 U.S. Representatives, including Arkansas Republican and future DEA head, Asa Hutchinson, had pledged their support to the House bill, sponsored by Michigan Democrat John Conyers. And now, in August 2001, the nation’s leaders were holding hearings to discuss the bill. Among the biggest opponents of racial profiling who testified at the August 1 hearing was the man who is now the commissioner of the NYPD, Ray Kelly.
“In my experience, there is no greater threat to the credibility of law enforcement than racial profiling,” Kelly said at the outset of his remarks, which he based on his experiences as the Commissioner of U.S. Customs Service from 1998 to 2000. “Any agency that ignores this threat or delays in taking precautions against it risks not only its reputation, but the compact of trust between government and the rest of society.” Customs, he explained, had the broadest search authority of any law enforcement agency in the country, but “[u]nder no circumstances do these factors ever include a person’s race.”
On that day, the country seemed ready to abandon a troubling law enforcement practice that had been proven ineffective and unfair to people of color. But less than 6 weeks later, the momentum was dead. After two hijacked planes flew into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2011, “the whole discussion stopped,” says David Harris a University of Pittsburgh law professor and one the nation’s most experienced racial profiling experts. “Within days of nine-eleven the push-back against profiling starts.” The racial profiling bill never made it beyond that August hearing.
or the first time in 11 years, many in New York are feeling hope again that New York City’s racial profiling problem might soon be curbed if not eliminated. On Monday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a plan that some say could reduce the disproportionately high number of young black and Latino men stopped-and-frisked. Cuomo wants do that by further decriminalizing the possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana. It’s already something one can carry in New York without being arrested, as long as it isn’t publicly displayed. But Cuomo wants to make it something one can carry and display without being arrested. Even more surprising than Cuomo’s announcement was that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly agreed with him. “The Governor’s proposal today is consistent with the Commissioner’s directive, and strikes the right balance,” said Bloomberg at a press conference endorsing Cuomo’s plan.
Advocates and activists who’ve been involved in the battles to reform drug policy and the battle to reform stop-and-frisk say there’s no question that there’s value in decriminalizing smaller amounts of marijuana. Young whites are equally if not more likely to use marijuana than their minority peers. But blacks and Latinos made up 80 percent of those arrested for low-level marijuana possession, and according to Governor Cuomo, 94 percent of those ultimately convicted. “The consequences of an arrest are severe, especially for young people of color who are already disproportionately subjected to criminal justice system intervention and incarceration,” Brooklyn Assemblymen and rising star in the Democratic Party, Hakeem Jeffries, wrote in an editorial published on CNN.com last week. “An arrest creates serious barriers to going to college or getting a job, and that person’s future may begin to spiral downward.”
But many raise questions about how a plan like Cuomo’s — which bears no resemblance to the ambitious one that had attained such a broad base of support in 2001, including from Ray Kelly — could actually