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Ashcroft calls for elimination of racial profiling


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Attorney General John Ashcroft Thursday ordered a review of racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies, a practice denounced by civil rights groups and one he vowed to combat during his contentious confirmation hearing.

"It needs to stop," Ashcroft declared, announcing his support of legislation to ban the practice of singling out people based on their race. "Every American has a right to look to law enforcement officials to protect their rights."

Calling it "tragic," Ashcroft said justice must not be "dependent upon racial profiling," a system he said undermines the trust between law enforcement authorities and the public.

Ashcroft -- whose nomination for attorney general came under fire from Democrats who accused the former senator from Missouri of being insensitive to minorities -- made his announcement two days after President Bush told Congress he wants the practice stopped.

"We are very eager to move forward on this directive of the president of the United States and to participate in its fulfillment," Ashcroft said at a news conference. "I believe we will enhance law enforcement to the extent that we can build and expand upon the trust of individuals."

Ashcroft said he sent a letter to ranking members of the House and Senate, saying he would work with them over the next six months "to produce a legislative product" on racial profiling.

"I believe Congress can and will respond constructively, and I will work with them to make sure they do," he said.

He said if Congress cannot produce legislation within six months, then "I'll simply launch a study of my own."

In addition, Ashcroft said he has ordered a Justice Department review of the nature and extent of racial profiling by any federal law enforcement agency.

"I would hope we would be able to develop an understanding of the current policies of the federal law enforcement agencies as they relate to racial profiling," Ashcroft said.

He said he had spoken at length with the president on the issue and he was pleased to hear Bush address racial profiling in his speech to Congress Tuesday night.

Ashcroft said he had previously questioned the need for a law prohibiting racial profiling because he believed the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution already provided such protection. Further legislation would amount to treating "people based solely on their race," he said, describing his earlier view. But he said testimony he heard in 1999, when he was a senator, changed his opinion.

"The testimony there galvanized an opinion of mine from the philosophic to the tragic," he said.

Specifically, Ashcroft cited testimony by a man who said he was traveling across the country with his 12-year-old son and stopped twice by law enforcement -- the second time, his car was disassembled, and he and his son were left on the side of the road.

"It changed theory into tragedy, and indelibly marked me with an understanding that racial profiling has really human consequences," the attorney general said.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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