Guidelines issued Tuesday by the Justice Department directly impact some 120,000 U.S. law enforcement officers at the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, Homeland Security Department, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Coast Guard and other agencies.
"Religious or ethnic or racial stereotyping is simply not good policing," said Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Ralph Boyd. "We want to make sure it doesn't happen, even once."
The policy makes a clear distinction between routine law enforcement work and that involving national security or border security. Although reliance on racial and ethnic stereotypes is broadly forbidden, the guidelines say that authorities can subject certain ethnic or racial groups to greater scrutiny if there is specific information that such people are preparing to mount a terrorist attack.
For example, Middle Eastern men might draw greater attention at airports if the government discovered a plot by al Qaeda to bomb U.S. airliners. In addition, the policy allows consideration of race if there is "trustworthy" information that people of a certain race or ethnicity engaged in a specific crime or are part of a criminal organization.
But critics charge these loopholes essentially allow government officials to engage in racial profiling when they deem it necessary.
"It looks to me that it is more interested in carving out exceptions to racial profiling than it is in enforcing a ban," said Miriam Gohara, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office, said the guidelines also provide no concrete enforcement mechanisms and would have no impact on state and local police. For that, she said Congress should pass a law.
"This acknowledges racial profiling as a national concern but doesn't do anything to stop it," Murphy said.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, there have been repeated complaints that the government is singling out people with Islamic, Arabic or Middle Eastern ties for increased scrutiny at U.S. borders, greater law enforcement surveillance and longer detention for immigration violations.
Boyd, however, said the new policy stems not from the attacks but from President Bush's presidential campaign, when he promised if elected to enact such a ban. Mr. Bush directed Attorney General John Ashcroft on Feb. 27, 2001, to assess the problem and recommend new guidelines — which the president recently approved.
Racial profiling by police gained national attention in 1998 when two New Jersey state troopers admitted shooting at a van occupied by four minority men in an incident that state officials later acknowledged as racial profiling.
Alabama last month became the latest state to enact its own ban, joining others including Texas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Arkansas and California. The federal policy, Boyd said, "is a model for all police" to follow suit.
A Justice Department study also released Tuesday did not find widespread instances of racial profiling by federal agencies, which have contact with tens of millions of people each year though arrests, border inspections and immigration checks.
There were about 300 complaints brought against federal agencies in 2000 and 2001 — mostly against Customs and immigration officials — with only one misconduct finding in 2000 and one case from 2001 referred for disciplinary action. Several cases from both years are still pending.
In addition, 25 civil lawsuits were filed against federal agencies alleging racial profiling in those two years; all but seven remained pending in the courts. Three were settled, and four were dismissed.