The top law enforcement official in the eastern U.S. state of Maryland has issued the first formal state guidelines in the country barring police from the arbitrary profiling of races and minorities.
Maryland's guidelines, unveiled Tuesday by state Attorney General Brian Frosh, limit situations under which law enforcement can consider race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation during routine interactions with the public. The directive comes as a national debate intensifies about police treatment of minorities, particularly in America's larger cities, after a year of unrest spurred by a series of deadly confrontations between police and young black males.
One of the most volatile incidents occurred in April in Maryland's Baltimore city, when 25-year-old African American Freddie Gray died from injuries sustained in police custody. His death sparked days of protests and rioting, mass arrests, arsons and looting.
State officials eventually deployed National Guard troops to restore order, as solidarity protests erupted In New York City, Boston, Denver, Milwaukee and other U.S. cities.
The Baltimore fatality, ruled a homicide, led to criminal charges against six police officers. No trials have yet occurred.
Chief guideline details
Under the new rules, police are prohibited from considering race, religion or other personal traits when conducting routine patrols or other activity not related to a specific crime or criminal organization. Police are limited to considering such traits in instances where they possess "credible information" that makes such details "directly relevant" to a criminal pursuit or investigation.
Speaking Tuesday alongside representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and black leaders, Attorney General Frosh said the state's goal is to repair "frayed relationships between police and many in the community during everyday encounters."
In his directive, Frosh writes that the new rules do not require law enforcement "to ignore or reject bona fide leads and credible intelligence" from eyewitnesses who describe a suspect's race or ethnicity. The problems, he writes, come from the constitutional issues arising from the broad targeting of specific groups without specific evidence of a crime.
Rules widely praised
The new state guidelines, which follow similar rules issued last year by the U.S. Justice Department for federal officers, are being hailed by law enforcement and civil rights leaders.
Interim Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis called the new guidelines "an important step forward." State NAACP leader Gerald Stansbury also voiced approval.
"African American communities have been victims of profiling for far too long," Stansbury said. "We know that good policing can be done without improper and discriminatory police practices."
The Baltimore Sun newspaper quotes state police union official Frank Boston as saying he believes the current law was fair and that it protected police and the public. But he also said the union will work to implement the new rules.
Some material for this report came from AP and Reuters.