Racial Profiling

by on February 1st, 2011
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Creating profiles, which have always been a subject of debate because they are often considered racist, is fairly standard in law enforcement. They are most often used in law enforcement regarding the sale of drugs or trafficking, but they apply to other issues of illegal activity as well. Basically, profiling is founded on a set of rather general characteristics and physical features that are stereotypical of potential criminals or terrorists. Officers are made aware of them so that if they see these characteristics, they should immediately be alert and cautious. Oftentimes, profiling involves the enforcement agencies actually providing very specific lists of things they are looking for to their officers; this is meant to aid their investigations and law enforcement, but the result is unfair stereotyping that often gets innocent people detained simply because of their race. For this reason, there is a growing movement pushing for the abolishment of racial profiling altogether. Racial profiling is the use of racial generalizations or stereotypes as a basis for stopping, searching, or questioning an individual (Wooster, 2001). This process started getting a lot of negative attention near the turn of the century when there were some false arrests and detentions, along with the release of information concerning how profiling is actually done. The information that came out to the public consistently showed that African Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement for stops, frisks, and searches. Furthermore, Arabs are disproportionately targeted in airports, drawing far more attention from security and law enforcement than anyone else. The law enforcement agencies all agree that this is absolutely necessary for the safety of everyone. However, there are plenty of people, especially completely innocent minorities, who disagree. Court records showed, for example, that in Maryland African Americans made up 70 percent of those stopped and searched by the Maryland State Police from January 1995 through December 1997, on a road on which 17.5 percent of the drivers and speeders were African American (Cohen, 2003). A 1999 report by the New Jersey Attorney General found that 77 percent of those stopped and searched on New Jersey highways are African American or Hispanic, even though, according to one expert, only 13.5 percent of the drivers and 15 percent of the speeders on those highways are African American or Hispanic (Cohen, 2003). An Orlando Sentinel analysis of 1,000 videotapes of Florida state trooper traffic stops in 1992 showed that on a road where 5 percent of the drivers were African American or Hispanic, 70 percent of those stopped and 80 percent of those searched by the Florida state police were African American or Hispanic (Cohen, 2003). Although statistical data alone do not conclusively establish that officers are engaged in “racial profiling,” they provide strong circumstantial evidence. Many police officers do admit that, all other things being equal, they are more suspicious of, for example, young African-American men than elderly white women. Nor is such thinking irrational. But why does it have to be African-American men? Whey can’t it be young white men? Criminologists generally agree that young African-American men are more likely to commit crime than elderly white women, because at least with respect to some crime, young people commit more crime than old people, men commit more crime than women, and African Americans commit more crime than whites (Ramirez, 2003). Indeed, it is precisely because the use of race as a generalization is not irrational that racial profiling is such a widespread phenomenon. In some areas, however, there is evidence that the use of racial profiles is irrational. The strongest evidence is with respect to drug law enforcement. Much of the racial profiling that occurs on the nation’s highways is conducted for drug law enforcement purposes. Officers use the pretext of a traffic infraction to stop a car and then ask for consent to search the car for drugs. This tactic has been approved by the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet studies show that officers get virtually the same “hit rates” for whites and African Americans when they conduct traffic stops for drugs (Harris, 1999). In other words, officers are no more likely to find drugs on an African-American driver than a white driver. Consistent with these results, the U.S. Public Health Service has found, based on confidential self-report surveys, that African Americans and whites use illegal drugs in rough proportion to their representation in the population at large. In 1992, for example, 76 percent of illegal drug users were white and 14 percent were African American (Harris, 1999). Since most users report having purchased drugs from a dealer of the same race, drug dealing is also likely to be fairly evenly represented demographically. Thus, the theory that African Americans are more likely to be carrying drugs is definitely contradicted by the data. In any event, even where demographic data suggests that the practice of racial profiling may not be irrational, it is both unconstitutional and unwise. Because of the harmful history of racial classifications in the United States, the Supreme Court forbids official reliance on racial generalizations – even accurate ones – except when there is no other way to achieve a compelling government end (Cole, 1999). The usual argument police officers advance in defense of profiling is that it recognizes the unfortunate fact that minorities are more likely than whites to commit crime. But while this may be true with respect to some crimes, the generalizations do not provide any proof. The fact that African Americans are more likely than whites to engage in violent crime, for example, does not mean that most African Americans commit violent crime. Most African Americans, like most whites, do not commit any crime; annually, at least 90 percent of African Americans are not arrested for anything (Cole, 1999). On any given day, the number of innocent African Americans is even higher. In addition, when officers focus on minorities, they lose sight of white criminals. Race is a terribly inaccurate indicator of crime. Most important, relying on race as a factor for suspicion violates the first principle of criminal law: individual responsibility. The state’s authority to take its citizens’ liberty, and in extreme cases, lives, turns on the premise that all are equal before the law (source). Racial generalizations fail to treat people as individuals. As a result, policies that tolerate racial profiling undermine the legitimacy of criminal law. References Cohen, C., & Sterba, J. P. (2003). Affirmative Action and Racial Preference: A Debate. New York: Oxford University Press. Cole, D. (1999). No equal justice: Race and class in the American criminal justice system. New York, NY: New Press. Feagin, J. R. (2001). Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations. New York: Routledge. Harris, D. (1999). Driving while black: Racial profiling on our nation’s highways. New York, NY: American Civil Liberties Union. Harris, D. (1999). The stories, the statistics, and the law: Why driving while black matters, Minnesota Law Review, 84(2), 265-326. Harrison, G. (2002, Summer). From Racial to Religious Profiling. Free Inquiry, 22, 21+. Ramirez, D. A., Hoopes, J., & Quinlan, T. L. (2003). Defining Racial Profiling in a Post-September 11 World. American Criminal Law Review, 40(3), 1195+. Wooster, M. M. (2001, September). The Truth about Racial Profiling. The American Enterprise, 12, 57.


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