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SPLC: ‘Racial profiling in law enforcement is widespread across Louisiana’

Evidence suggests that racial profiling – the unconstitutional practice of law enforcement that targets people because of their skin color – is widespread in Louisiana, according to a report the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Further, the report states, law enforcement agencies across the state have failed to create policies and procedures to prevent or stop racial profiling.

The report, “Racial Profiling in Louisiana: Unconstitutional and Counterproductive,” analyzes the lack of detailed racial profiling policies at law enforcement agencies across the state. The adverse effects of racial profiling are widely known and contribute to Louisiana’s high incarceration rate and disproportionate imprisonment of people of color.

However, more than one-third of the state’s law enforcement agencies lack any policy on racial profiling at all, and existing policies at the other law-enforcement agencies generally fail to give officers and deputies the tools they need to understand what racial profiling is or what conduct is prohibited.

“Racial profiling is pervasive and insidious. It creates profound distrust between over-policed communities and law enforcement, thereby endangering public safety,” said Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “Without in-depth racial profiling policies, law enforcement officers across Louisiana are missing a major tool to help them fairly and effectively protect and serve all communities. To ignore this problem is to condone it, and that has to stop.”

There are two common types of racial profiling: unreasonable suspicion, in which a law enforcement officer assumes that a person is committing a crime based solely on that person’s race or ethnicity; and unequal enforcement, in which an officer stops a person for a minor infraction, even though he or she would not have stopped a person of another race or ethnicity for the same violation.

The SPLC requested racial profiling policies from 331 law enforcement agencies throughout Louisiana; 310 responded. Of those, 109 agencies admitted to having no racial profiling policy at all. One of those agencies, the Bernice Police Department, provided a conclusory one-sentence response: “We have no written policies on racial profiling since we do not racially profile.”

Policies provided by 89 law enforcement agencies across the state are not broad enough to prohibit both unreasonable suspicion and unequal enforcement, according to the report. Another 112 agencies provided policies that do cover both types of racial profiling, but many of those policies are short, vague, or fail to clearly explain what racial profiling is, and what actions are not permitted. A handful of agencies provided irrelevant documents, such as policies on workplace harassment and equal employment opportunities.

“It is unacceptable that so many law enforcement agencies throughout Louisiana are operating with little to no guidance on racial profiling,” said Jamila Johnson, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC. “The absence of detailed racial profiling policies has almost certainly contributed to Louisiana’s high incarceration rate, and without question has resulted in disproportionate policing of people of color. The only way to hold law enforcement officials accountable and ensure that the laws are being enforced equally across all demographics is to implement comprehensive racial profiling policies and require detailed data collection.”

The report states that Louisiana police officers’ unequal focus on people of color also means that they are disproportionately ticketed, arrested, prosecuted, and ultimately imprisoned. In 2016, Black adults comprised only 30.6 percent of the state’s adult population, but accounted for 53.7 percent of adults who were arrested. That same year, Black people were 2.9 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession in Louisiana, even though Black adults are statistically less likely than white adults to use marijuana.

In Gretna, Black people made up two-thirds of the city’s arrests in 2016 but only one-third of the city’s population. The Gretna Police Department does not have a racial profiling policy. It did provide the SPLC with its mission statement, code of ethics, workplace harassment policy and an arrest policy that states its legal obligations under federal and state non-discrimination laws to “treat all individuals equally and fairly without regard to race, religion, sex, nationality or handicap.”

Between 2011 and 2017, the Baton Rouge Police Department made more than 1,600 traffic stops enforcing a local ordinance that makes it a misdemeanor to “disturb the peace” by playing loud music from a vehicle. A majority of those stops were in predominantly Black neighborhoods, raising the concern that officers may be using the ordinance to unfairly stop Black drivers. The Baton Rouge Police Department did provide the SPLC with its racial profiling policy, but the policy does not clearly state what conduct is prohibited under the policy.

The SPLC’s report includes recommendations for law enforcement agencies, the state Legislature and the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Criminal Justice to help agencies maintain adequate policies, provide appropriate training, and record sufficient data to prevent racial profiling. Those recommendations include adopting policies that ban all forms of racial profiling. They also include mandating the collection and publication of data for all traffic and pedestrian stops, uses of force, arrests and complaints.

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