There are very few subjects in law enforcement that are more controversial and complex than racial profiling. The first issue is how to establish a clear, consistent definition to be able to measure whether or not racial profiling is occurring. The second issue is once an effective definition is established, how to accurately review law enforcement policy and procedures to determine whether racial profiling is in fact occurring. The third issue is dealing with incidents of racial profiling, as well as correcting public perceptions when racial profiling is in fact not occurring.
Racial Profiling-What is it?
One example of the challenges of effectively defining racial profiling is with the definition within the “Ending Racial Profiling Act of 2001” which described it as: “the practice of a law enforcement agent, relying to any degree, on race, ethnicity, or national origin in selecting which individuals to subject to routine investigatory activities, or in deciding upon the scope and substance of law enforcement activity following the initial routine investigatory activities, except that racial profiling does not include reliance on such criteria in combination with other identifying factors when the law enforcement agent is seeking to apprehend a specific suspect whose race, ethnicity or national origin is part of the description of the suspect.”
It is quite unwieldy and provides little guidance for the complex realities of law enforcement duties. Many police administrators subscribe to the common sense definition as being “using race, ethnicity or national origin as the “sole” basis for a stop”. Even this “just the facts” definition does not help, in that many times, as Milwaukee Police Racial Profiling policy review states: “An unfortunate paradox exists: the vulnerable neighborhoods most in need of police services are often inhabited by residents who feel unfairly targeted by police.” The challenge now is to clarify law enforcement duties to more effectively review those activities with respect to actual racial bias, the underlying concern of those feeling targeted by police.
My View from Patrol
First, to be clear, I was raised to view judging a person by external or group characteristics, rather than as an individual as repugnant and immoral, which remains my view. As a patrol officer during training, I was expected to “learn” my district. This meant familiarizing myself with knowledge of streets, much like a mental map to ensure efficient response and always knowing my location. Along with that, I was to learn the various hotspots for criminal activity, such as prostitution, youth or gang hang outs and drug activity, which included recognizing behaviors, dress and other cues of criminal activity. Just as important was learning normal neighborhood or business activities to distinguish when something seemed “out of place”.
This was done, not just to catch criminal activity; it was done to ensure officer safety, for example, walking into a convenience store robbery, in other words, promoting strong situational awareness. As I gained experience, I improved my ability to perceive behaviors and activities that were associated with criminal activity. Location, time of day, residential versus commercial, high crime areas versus low crime areas and cultural indicators all played a part in determining traffic stops, field interviews or other law enforcement activities.
Effective patrolling didn’t mean when I saw a person of color, I engaged that person. The criteria emphasized the total context of the situation. Was this person in a known drug area? Wearing gang colors or tattoos, making sudden movements consistent with throwing down or hiding something or an unusual change in behavior such as suddenly walking away from someone they were talking to or hanging in the shadows of a business after it closed especially when there have been recent reports of business burglaries in the area.
Some neighborhoods tend to be homogenous; meaning primarily white, black, Hispanic or other ethnicity, seeing someone outside that composition would attract attention and generate a stop if there were additional cues such as known drug activity in the area, burglaries, home invasions or other criminal activity briefed during pre-patrol briefings. Put simply, it was things out of context within the specific circumstances that would initiate contact, race or ethnicity played a very small part.
As a patrol officer, I would be equally suspicious of a young, white, female “yuppie” in a known drug area that happened to also be a black neighborhood, as I would be of a black male dressed in a hoodie in a predominately upper middle class white neighborhood during the day when residential burglaries frequently occur while homeowners are at work. The emphasis is not on race, but in the total context of the circumstances, including location, dress and behavior. In both those cases, I would be equally likely to make contact with both individuals based upon my experience with patterns of criminal activity. Officer experience is an integral part of contextual profiling, not racial profiling.
Racial Profiling- Challenges in Policy and Perception
Legislators, anti- profiling activists and the media commonly refer to the disproportionate number of traffic stops to point to racial profiling by a given department. One example was an effort to “expose” racial profiling by ABC called “Driving while Black”, who hired 3 young black men to drive around New Brunswick, New Jersey in a Mercedes Benz. Because they were pulled over and the vehicle searched, that was cited as proof of racial profiling. The problem with this assessment is a failure to convey whether the tags on the vehicle were from out of state, how the men were dressed, where they were driving and a whole host of other factors going into the decision to stop and search them that had nothing to do with race or ethnicity.
While policy makers and others concerned with racial profiling use disproportionality of vehicle stops to cite racial profiling, it fails to accurately and fairly measure the service law enforcement is providing. Part of the complications to resolving this issue is regaining the trust of areas previously harmed by poor police conduct, as well as defensiveness of law enforcement when accusations of racial profiling are unjustified. It is also legitimate to feel frustration after being repeatedly stopped for what seems like trivial reasons or unclear motives.
Another factor is a poor understanding by the public and law makers of why and how law enforcement makes the decisions it does, in particular when violence or lethal measures are taken. Improvements in community policing programs, patient and persistent efforts to engage and coordinate with community leaders and effective development of “people” and communications skills among officers over time will go a long way in helping to resolve the issues of actual and perceptual racial profiling in law enforcement.
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What is your definition of racial profiling? Does stopping and searching a person of color always mean racial profiling? How do you tell the difference between racial profiling and legitimate police efforts to curb criminal activity? I welcome your thoughts and comments below.