WASHINGTON (RNN) - U.S. senators heard contentious testimony on the state of racial profiling in America, the first such hearings since Sept. 11, 2001.
The hearing happened just days after an affidavit from the Florida State Attorney's Office stated that 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was "profiled" by 28-year-old George Zimmerman before the neighborhood watch captain killed him.
Martin's death, Arizona's controversial immigration law (Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act-SB 1070) and the practice of profiling people of Middle Eastern descent were all discussed before an overflowing chamber.
"Trayvon was murdered by someone who thought he looked suspicious," said Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-FL. "It is a sad reality that we have to teach boys [about racial profiling] just to survive in their own communities."
East Palo Alto, CA, Chief of Police Ronald Davis echoed Wilson.
"Even though I'm a police chief with more than 27 years of experience, I know that when I teach my son how to drive, I will have to teach him what to do when he gets stopped by the police," he said.
Davis, who has worked as a law enforcement officer in East Palo Alto and Oakland, CA, also testified more than 10 years ago at the last Senate Judiciary Committee on racial profiling.
Testimony addressed the End Racial Profiling Act of 2011, which would prohibit law enforcement agencies from using racial profiling in their investigations. It would also put into motion programs to eliminate current profiling efforts across the country.
However, Officer Frank Gale, the second vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police, told senators that the act would hurt relations between police and minorities more than it helps, and it defined racial profiling in terms that were "too broad."
"It is clear that racism is morally and ethically wrong," said Officer Frank Gale, the second vice president of the national Fraternal Order of Police. "[But] this bill provides an answer to a problem that doesn't exist, unless you believe that law enforcement is patently racist."
He said the bill was "offensive" to members of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation's largest law enforcement labor organization, because it assumed that a person was "a racist because of the color his uniform."
Davis later countered Gale's statements, telling the hearing that the bill was not offensive but was rather a way of ensuring that being a police officer didn't make an individual "exempt from the Constitution or exempt from accountability."
He also said that as a law enforcement officer and as a black man, he's seen racial profiling from both sides. As an officer, he told Senators of profiling white people in an area of Oakland, as the majority of people who purchased drugs in the area were white.
The practice was ineffective. He said criminal profiling by staying attentive for signs of a drug deal were more effective than profiling based on race.
President of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity Roger Clegg called profiling "problematic," but shocked onlookers as he continued his testimony.
"While I am no fan of racial profiling … I think we have to recognize that it's going to be tempting for the police if there is a disproportionate amount of crime committed by African Americans," he said, claiming that the issue lies in the number of black children who are born out of wedlock.
He also advocated for monitoring Muslim groups in the interest of national security, although he conceded that the issue of racial profiling is complicated and multifaceted.
A letter to Graham and Sen. Richard Durbin, chairman of the subcommittee, touched on this issue in particular.
On behalf of 35 national organizations, including the religious freedom group the Interfaith Alliance, the NAACP and the Islamic Society of North America, the letter criticized religious profiling "which may sometimes also be used as a proxy for race, ethnicity or national origin."
"We appreciate that most law enforcement officials discharge their duties honorably," the letter said. However, practices that target a specific religions group "not only have the effect of discriminating against religion generally and religious minorities in particular, but also fuel divisiveness by casting suspicion over an entire religious community."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a ranking member on the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, seemed inclined to agree with Clegg, although he also noted that the issue was problematic.
"How do you fight homegrown terrorism without fighting a particular faith?" he asked. "I hope we will not get so sensitive to this issue that we will unilaterally disarm [the U.S.]."
Clegg told senators the occurrence of racial profiling was over exaggerated by the media and activists, a point which Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) countered.
"The data we have already shows us there's a problem," he said, citing statistics from the New York ACLU division of drivers pulled over in New York between 2002 and 2011. About 88 percent of those pulled over were found innocent of any wrongdoing, but black and Latino residents made up a whopping 87 percent of those stopped.
"Let's collect more data and let's make some remedies," he said.
The End Racial Profiling Act of 2011 was introduced by Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-MD, on Oct. 6, 2011.
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