MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday urged state and local law enforcement bodies to develop their own rigorous policies regarding profiling, a day after announcing guidelines limiting the ability of federal law enforcement agencies to profile on the basis of religion, national origin and other characteristics.
Holder discussed the guidelines during a speech in a theater full of mostly Democrats at the My Brother's Keeper Communities Challenge Summit in Memphis, the city where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968 while supporting protests by black sanitation workers striking against low pay and unsafe working conditions.
Holder has visited Atlanta and Cleveland in recent days to address racial profiling and community policing, a topic that has been at the forefront of the national consciousness after two unarmed black men died during confrontations with white officers in Missouri and New York.
Guidelines announced Monday in Washington replace decade-old directives established under the Bush administration. The rules cover federal agencies within the Justice Department, including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Some activities of the Department of Homeland Security are covered, such as civil immigration enforcement, though border and airport security screening are exempt along with interdictions at ports of entry.
The guidelines extend to local and state officers serving on task forces alongside federal agents, but not to state and local police who are primarily responsible for traffic stops, 911 calls and day-to-day interactions with the communities they patrol.
"Today, I urge state and local law enforcement agencies to look to this new federal guidance as a model and to develop their own rigorous policies along similar lines," Holder said. "This will promote sound law enforcement techniques that will help to move us toward the ultimate goal of ending racial profiling once and for all."
Holder described what he called the "humiliation" of racial profiling by telling a story about when, as a federal prosecutor, he was stopped by a police officer at night while running to catch a movie in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
"He stopped and asked me what was I doing, where was I going," Holder said. "To that police officer, I was a black guy, in the wrong place, running fast at night, and he thought it was a basis to stop me."
Decisions by grand juries not to indict officers in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, sparked public demonstrations in cities throughout the country. Some have been peaceful, while others have included road blockages, looting and confrontations with police, resulting in arrests.
Protesters gathered outside the theater where Holder spoke, holding signs saying "Memphis Can't Breathe," in reference to the police chokehold applied to Garner. The rally was one of a handful of peaceful protests that have sprung up in Memphis in recent weeks.
The largest protest was a Nov. 25 rally of more than 200 people at a busy intersection, where black and white protesters calling for racial equality and police reform kept to the sidewalks and did not block the street.
Organizers have called for peaceful protests. Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong has said, though, that the department is ready for violent unrest.
Armstrong, who is black, called on police chiefs from the nation's large cities to work to establish national standards for community policing. Armstrong worked on the streets of majority-black Memphis before becoming police director and is a proponent of establishing relationships between officers and communities they serve.
"If you look at what's going on in Ferguson, I think it's a clear depiction of what happens when community policing is not done aggressively or when it's not done correctly," Armstrong said.