April 17, 2020

Harris, Booker, Colleagues Demand DOJ Provide Training to Combat Racial Profiling During COVID-19 Pandemic

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) and Cory A. Booker (D-NJ) on Friday led a letter to Attorney General William Barr and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Christopher Wray demanding racial profiling training for all law enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter comes after reports of African American men being targeted by law enforcement based on the CDC’s guidance to wear face coverings.

“On April 3, the CDC recommended that individuals “wear[] face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.” Less than one week later, African American men began reporting incidents of racial profiling for adhering to the CDC’s guidance,” the lawmakers wrote.

They continued, “With the ongoing public health emergency, it is more important than ever for law enforcement to build trust with communities of color.  Accordingly, we urge your agencies to immediately provide training and guidance on bias, policing, and disproportionate or selective enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic.  We also urge your agencies to encourage the use of federal guidance to create model recommendations at the state and local level.”

Joining Harris and Booker on the letter are Senators Durbin (D-IL), Markey (D-MA), Hirono (D-HI), and Cardin (D-MD).

A copy of the letter can be found here and below.

April 17, 2020

The Honorable William Barr

Attorney General

U.S. Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20530

 

The Honorable Christopher Wray

Director

Federal Bureau of Investigation

935 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20535

 

Dear Attorney General Barr and Director Wray:

We write to request that your offices immediately provide training and guidance relating to bias in law enforcement during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. 

On April 3, the CDC recommended that individuals “wear[] face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.” Less than one week later, African American men began reporting incidents of racial profiling for adhering to the CDC’s guidance.  In Wood River, Illinois, for instance, two African American men in surgical masks recorded themselves being followed by a police officer as they left Walmart.  The police officer reportedly asked for their identification and erroneously told them the city’s ordinance prohibited wearing masks in public.  Wood River Police are now investigating the incident internally, with the assistance of the local NAACP. In Miami, Florida, an African American doctor wore a mask as he prepared for a volunteer shift to test homeless individuals for COVID-19; he was subsequently handcuffed and detained outside his home.  The Miami Police Department is investigating the incident.

In other cases, African American men are reportedly being harassed for not wearing masks and face coverings in public.  On April 9, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) issued a policy requiring all riders to wear facial coverings on public transit.  The next day, an African American man without a mask was depicted on video being forcibly dragged from a bus by at least four police officers. A police report indicated that the rider had caused a disturbance on the bus stemming from a disagreement over wearing a face mask.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice issued guidance to expressly reaffirm the federal government’s “deep commitment to ensuring that its law enforcement agencies conduct their activities in an unbiased manner.” This guidance also clarified that “[b]iased practices . . . are unfair, promote mistrust of law enforcement, and perpetuate negative and harmful stereotypes.  Moreover—and vitally important—biased practices are ineffective.” The Justice Department should send instructions to state and local law enforcement, consistent with this existing guidance. But recent cases also highlight the need for additional guidance on bias and enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic.  If communities of color—especially African American communities—feel at risk of disproportionate or selective enforcement, they may avoid seeking help or adopting precautionary measures recommended by the CDC.  This, in turn, could have dire public health consequences—especially given that COVID-19 is already infecting and killing African Americans at alarming and disproportionately high rates.

With the ongoing public health emergency, it is more important than ever for law enforcement to build trust with communities of color.  Accordingly, we urge your agencies to immediately provide training and guidance on bias, policing, and disproportionate or selective enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic.  We also urge your agencies to encourage the use of federal guidance to create model recommendations at the state and local level.

Sincerely,

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