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U.S. likely to widen ban on profiling of criminal suspects

By David Ingram

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Justice is likely to broaden a ban on investigators profiling criminal suspects by race to include religion, country of origin, gender and sexual orientation, a person familiar with an internal review said on Thursday.

Expanding the ban would mark a major policy shift for U.S. law enforcement and would address a frequent complaint by minorities in America who feel they are singled out for unwarranted extra scrutiny.

It was not certain when a final decision would be made, according to the person familiar with the review, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Federal agents have been prohibited from profiling suspects by race in almost all cases since 2003, but complaints persist of the unwarranted targeting of religious or other groups, including Muslims and Sikhs.

Eric Holder, the first black U.S. attorney general, began a review of department policy in late 2009, the same year he took office as an appointee of President Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States.

"We've all seen heart-wrenching stories of misguided racial profiling," Holder said in a June 2010 speech to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

"But we must always remember that virtually all of our nation's law enforcement officers serve their communities honorably - and risk their personal safety - every day."

He said at the time that the Department of Justice would not "stand idly by" as some law enforcement departments engage in discriminatory policing.

The 2003 ban on racial profiling did not apply to national security cases or to border-related investigations - which are loopholes criticized by some rights activists. There is also a contentious debate over whether profiling is helpful in investigations.

The pending policy changes would apply only to federal agents, not to state or local law enforcement. They were first reported by the New York Times.

Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Congress to prohibit profiling not only by race but by religion, national origin, gender and ethnicity, but so far it has not been passed.

'A STEP FORWARD'

Civil liberties organizations welcomed the expected policy shift and said they were eager to see the details in writing.

"If what they're saying is true, it really would represent a step forward, but we really won't be satisfied until we see the details," said Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office.

The ACLU has asked the Justice Department to close the national security and border exceptions, designate an office where people can file complaints and require similar policies at local police departments that accept federal funding.

Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement that when the policy is released it would "monitor its implementation, particularly as it applies to national security investigations."

Word of the possible action came after Holder on Wednesday met with Bill de Blasio, the new mayor of New York City who won office in part by campaigning against a "stop-and-frisk" police program implemented under predecessor Michael Bloomberg.

A federal judge halted the program last August, calling it a form of "indirect racial profiling" because it resulted in the disproportionate stopping of tens of thousands of blacks and Hispanics.

But a U.S. appeals court in October froze the court-ordered reforms to the "stop-and-frisk" program and removed the judge who found the police tactic unconstitutional, saying she "ran afoul" of the judicial code of conduct.

(Editing by Will Dunham and Grant McCool)

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