06 Mar 2013

Justifying Race and Criminal Profiling

5 Comments Crime, Featured Articles

Race is a Social Construct, Not Biological

In preparation for this article, I conducted an experiment last night. It was informal and unscientific and yes, I already knew the results. I have a very young child with special needs. My great friend has also become one of his best friends. He loves her dearly. She, and I only for share this for the purpose of this example, is black.

I was pointing to objects and he was proudly declaring its color. Your shirt? Orange! My shorts? Red? You see the pattern. Then I asked what color is “Nay?” He said nothing while thinking about her. Then he exclaimed, “No color Nay!” I immediately, yet still unscientifically asked, what color was daddy. Thoughtful consideration and the same response.

Two points to make; first I knew his response was not going to be biased by race, as he cannot intellectualize the construct of color designation. Next, how awesome is his answer, and to be free of ideologies based on a genetically predisposed hue of pigment.

But alas, we are not blessed with the lenses of children. We are ensnared by assigning significance and meaning, or the lack thereof based on the color of skin. People are often confused and confrontational when I explain that race is a social construct and not a biological one.

The Seeds of Race and Criminal Profiling

The seeds of racial profiling were sown long before the 1980’s highway interdiction units began targeting black males along the nation’s corridors looking for crack cocaine or cash. Throughout the 1500 – 1900s, European ethnocentric colonialism established the formal Doctrine of Discovery. To justify taking over an entire nation and its peoples, the assignment of color was used to designate good and bad.

The use of terms like “dark” was common to include black and red skinned indigenous peoples inhabiting targeted lands. Dark’s association with evil, bad, and less-than, made popular acceptance by home nations more easily accepted. It was billed as an altruistic attempt to tame the savages. After all, who didn’t want the European standard?

Slave Patrols

Moving from the sociology-laden sermon, let’s advance to the 1700s South Carolina slave patrols. Although Boston and New York hosted the earliest professional police departments, the slave patrols were much larger and resembling today’s policing practices.

Law enforcement, like world history retains elements of race and targeting people of various color for various purposes. This does not make it justified, but there are occasions where illegal activities are attributed to a group sharing characteristics, such as race, gender, religion, and ethnicity.

This cannot open the door to widespread targeting by law enforcement, but when combined with intelligence, reliable information, and further investigation, race justifiably becomes a legitimate element for identifying criminal behavior.

Using Race to Profile

While racial profiling is challenged by the 4th Amendment- safe from search and seizure without probable cause, and the 14th Amendment- all citizens treated equal under the law, a presidential address to Congress on February 27, 2001 cited that it must be weighed against hindering the work of police. “They protect us every day…often at greatest risk…But by stopping the abuses of a few, we will add to the public confidence our police officers earn and deserve.” President George Bush.

The most commonly associated uses and abuses of racial profiling practices include black males committing crimes of drugs and violence, Hispanics and Latinos illegally entering this country and Arab and Muslims committing terrorist acts. Unfortunately, these are stereotypes, but are rooted in reality.

In the early 1990s as part of a multi-jurisdictional drug task force, “street jumps” was the most common practice of disrupting open-air crack cocaine markets. Requiring no investigation or thought; see black males, stop units, and jump out on them. The question was always asked, “What are y’all doing here?”

Immediately upon assuming a supervisory role, I ended this practice. What where they doing there? They lived there! That was the insanity of policing practices based solely on race profiling. I’ll temper this tactic with once the agents began concentrating contacts based on information and surveillance, the same individuals and locations were encountered.

We Must Do Better

The difference was in the justification of actions bringing law enforcement into interaction with individuals based largely on characteristics of race, gender and geography. Justice is not colorblind, but the carte blanche targeting of the singular individual based solely on an indictment of the entire targeted race is not justified.

Whether it involved assigning color for purposes of European ethnocentric colonialism throughout the 1500 – 1900s, or targeting Middle-Easterners for terroristic activities today, race is a legitimate element of criminal investigations. It just cannot serve as the only cause.

About

I am a native of south Louisiana’s Cajun Country and am currently serving as the Chief of Police for the City of Thibodaux, Louisiana. I spent twenty-one years with the CALEA accredited Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office allowing me the opportunity to serve in various capacities including 12 years narcotics, 16 years SWAT as well as Divisional Commands over Investigations, Special Services, and Patrol. During these years, I earned a Master of Public Administration and a Ph.D. in Urban Studies (Anthropology). I am fortunate to continue my passion for education by teaching college courses and contributing my expertise in data-driven approaches to crime and traffic safety at national conferences and workshops sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
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5 Responses to “Justifying Race and Criminal Profiling”

  1. Reply Justifying Race and Profiling | Bright Blue Line says:

    [...] Justifying Race and Profiling [...]

  2. Reply Juli says:

    Great article, Scott and a great reminder of how much we can learn from the innocence of children!

  3. Reply Chief Scott Silverii says:

    Thanks Juli,
    Race is a tough topic, but when looking at the conversations through your lenses this week, it makes it an approachable one for real discussion.

    Yes, the innocence of children and great, honest friends like “Nay”

  4. Reply Brian Cain says:

    Racial profiling will always be a violation if civil rights. Criminal profiling however is a different story. If an open air crack market consists of all black males, jumping out on black males in the open air crack market isn’t racial profiling. It is criminal profiling. As long a soon color isn’t a consideration, it isn’t race based.

    It would be no different if someone said that a white male was selling dope on a corner. If the physical description matches, he’s getting a visit.

  5. Reply Chief Scott Silverii says:

    Good points Brian,

    Race may serve as an element of a criminal indicator, but not the sole basis for conducting the investigation.

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