An American city is under curfew, the National Guard has rolled in, and for the first time, Amnesty International has sent a delegation of observers to U.S. soil. It is a sad day for all Americans, and in Ferguson, Mo., people of all colors, including Asian Americans, have been affected. We do not know what transpired that led to the death of Michael Brown. We do not know if Officer Wilson’s actions were justified or simply reprehensible. But we have seen the turmoil and mistrust that has followed. And we have seen individuals cross from protest to criminality.
The fuel for upheaval in Ferguson did not first flow on Aug. 9. Despite being a majority African-American community, only three of its police officers are black, the city’s mayor and police chief are white, and so are most of Ferguson’s city council. Questions of excessive force persisted in the city even before its recent crowd control tactics. And last year, the Missouri Attorney General’s Office concluded that Ferguson police were twice as likely to arrest African Americans during traffic stops as they were whites.
Nationwide, issues of race and law enforcement have been a combustible combination for generations, whether from racial implications in the nation’s drug laws, local stop and frisk policies, or driving while black/driving while Hispanic. And since 9/11, Muslim, Arab and South Asian Americans have endured sweeping and aggressive discrimination based on their race and religion. Such profiling drives confusion, anger, frustration, and fear in communities of color.
My father is a retired police officer, who was shot in the line of duty protecting his community. As a lieutenant later in his career, he trained officers on, among other things, de-escalating conflict through effective communication and engagement. Being raised in a police household, respect for law enforcement was ingrained in me. But so to was the importance of not alienating or ignoring the community that a department serves and protects. Fear and mistrust of law enforcement is anathema to effective community policing.
So, as community leaders come together to heal and promote unity, elected leaders must take steps to restore faith in law enforcement, not only in Ferguson, but nationwide. One step they must take is the passage of the End Racial Profiling Act. For more than a decade, our leaders have struggled to enact this federal legislation. President George W. Bush expressed strong support, stating that by “stopping the abuses of a few, we will add to the public confidence our police officers earn and deserve.” President Barack Obama has repeatedly urged Congress to pass this act.
Our communities are suffering, and now is the time for our leaders to act. We must pass the End Racial Profiling Act.
William J. Simonitsch is president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and a partner at K&L Gates.