How Profiling Works

Racial Profiling

Racial profiling is a form of predictive profiling in which one of the factors (or the only factor) officers consider is the skin color or race of the suspect. Keep in mind that we are not talking about "rogue cops" with racist attitudes. Of course, racism exists in law enforcement just as with any large group of people. The real controversy erupts when police departments have policy-level profiling systems that include race as a factor, or a department-wide culture that teaches and reinforces the practice. Some people claim that racial profiling is blatant, institutionalized racism that leads to unfair harassment of minorities, while others claim that racial profiling either doesn't exist (i.e., police officers harass criminals, and if they happen to be minorities, that isn't the officers' fault) or that it is a necessary tool that simply reflects reality.

Separating fact from opinion can be difficult, because the same facts are used by both sides of the debate to support their own point of view. Opponents of racial profiling cite the disparity between the percentage of black inmates in the U.S. prison population and the percentage of the overall black population as a sign that blacks are unfairly targeted by police. U.S. census data for 2000 indicates that blacks make up 12.3 percent of the U.S. population, while Department of Justice statistics indicate that roughly 40 percent of all prison inmates are black [ref]. A similar disparity can be found among Hispanics. But some suggest that these statistics merely indicate that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to commit crimes.

Statistical analysis is even more difficult. According to those who say racial profiling doesn't happen, there are too many variables that would need to be taken into account to accurately compare general populations to prison populations. Even if traffic stops, roadside searches or arrests are broken down by race, these stats might be skewed because police make more traffic stops at times of day when more minorities are driving, or minorities might have a greater tendency to violate traffic laws. Higher accident and accident fatality rates are often cited as evidence of this. Advocates also point out that if racism were at the heart of minority stop and arrest rates, minority police officers would have different statistics than white officers. In fact, black cops on average pull over the same number of black drivers as white cops do [ref].

The most high profile case of systematic racial profiling was uncovered in New Jersey in 1999. An analysis of New Jersey State Trooper practices was conducted by the state attorney general, revealing that blacks and Hispanics were pulled over and searched many more times than non-minority drivers. In fact, 80 percent of all traffic stops conducted by New Jersey State Troopers during a 10-year period were stops of minority drivers. The report also found that a "macho," elitist culture existed within the state trooper ranks [ref]. Although department policy officially forbade racial profiling, reports from many troopers indicated that it was common for veteran troopers to "coach" others on its practice. Authorities assigned federal monitors to the troopers. In 2006, a report suggested that New Jersey had eliminated racial profiling actions completely, but whether or not they would still need federal monitors remained in question.

The New Jersey scandal brought profiling practices across the country into the spotlight. While Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) training materials pointed out that racial profiling was unethical and against agency rules, DEA intelligence passed to agents and police departments frequently contained information on the national origin of potential suspects, as well as racial information [ref]. The New Jersey District Attorney's office issued a statement, declaring that law enforcement officers should not use race as a factor in any way during any step of the process of stopping and investigating a potential suspect. Essentially, cops should be blind to race, ethnicity and skin color (except when they are trying to match a person to a description of a specific suspect).

Departmental policies are supposed to aid law enforcement by examining trends in criminal activity. However, they have had the unintended consequence of creating a hostile situation for members of minorities who were innocent. Such policies would be considered civil rights violations, and many police departments have adopted policies specifically outlawing the practice. Twenty-two states have laws that ban racial profiling of motorists.