If I accused you of racial profiling, would you be insulted? Indignant? Can you tell me why? I hope you would want to know the context before giving defense or admission. I would agree that in most instances, labeling someone solely by their country of origin is unnecessary and impolite. However, lately the phrase has been generalized and blanketly applied without proper definition. Let’s unpack the term “racial profiling” and figure out what it means…and what it doesn’t mean. The “racial” part is easy – skin color or nationality. The “profiling” is more complex. Webster’s defines it as “the act or process of extrapolating information about a person based on known traits or tendencies” or “the act of suspecting or targeting a person on the basis of observed characteristics or behavior.” In case you didn’t notice, the definitions are basically the same, with the first in context of marketing and the second as meant when referring to law enforcement. The marketing context has a gentle, friendly connotation – they’re just getting to know you, right? But the law enforcement verbiage is mean and nasty: suspecting and targeting people just because of their appearance or behavior – how awful! So it’s okay that you’re reduced to a statistic when retailers want your money, but it’s unacceptable when it could save lives. It must be, since you never hear news stories about outrage over consumer profiling.
“Profiling” is most often preceded by the word “police” or “racial” and usually evokes reactions of disgust. In criminal justice, there is pre- and post-profiling (the concepts are real but I made up those terms for ease of illustration). Pre-profiling would be stopping a car that cruises repeatedly through a high drug trafficking area with occupants who are black males under 25. Isolated, those factors wouldn’t mean anything, but taken together they send up a red flag. While it is certainly possible that these guys are fine, upstanding young men who are just lost, a good cop would be well within the law to conclude that they might be looking for trouble. Post-profiling is not only legal, but a fascinating and legitimate science that combines investigative skills and behavioral studies to solve crimes. By analyzing the manner in which a crime was committed, the “profile” generated is not merely physical, but behavioral, mental and emotional as well. One famous case involved a search for the “Mad Bomber of New York” in 1956. Having no suspect description, police turned to psychiatrist James Brussel. After careful review of evidence and photographs of the crime scene, Dr. Brussel developed a detailed profile of the suspect. His description indicated the bomber would be a single, middle-aged male, heavy-set, foreign born, Roman Catholic, living with a sibling and probably wearing a double-breasted suit – buttoned. The suspect was apprehended a short time later, and Dr. Brussel’s profile proved to be amazingly accurate, right down to the man’s attire!
A majority of the public approves of post-profiling because it targets those who have already committed a crime. But that viewpoint is inconsistent with being against pre-profiling for one reason: it is still the association of certain physical or behavioral characteristics with tendency toward criminal activity. Therefore to carry it out, innocent people will inevitably be considered possible suspects if they match the profile’s criteria. So before finding the real Mad Bomber, I imagine NYPD questioned more than one overweight middle-aged Catholic man living with his sister. Were the others victims of criminal police profiling? By that logic, police and investigators would stumble about aimlessly forever, trying to solve a crime while tiptoeing around anything that might resemble “profiling.” The same would be true without pre-profiling. This means that you might one day be detained by police because you match the profile (either pre or post) of a criminal. Maybe you coincidentally fit the description of a suspect wanted for a recent burglary. Or perhaps you are truthfully in a “this isn’t what it looks like” situation. Cops don’t know that without talking to you, and once they establish that you are clean, they won’t be wasting their time harassing you for sport. Since we don’t have virtual signs above our heads with criminal records, age, marital status, and political alliances clearly posted, police have two options: use pre-profiling, or wait to pick up the pieces after crimes have occurred.
Citizens have set an impossible standard for law enforcement by ultimately expecting them to be psychic. When a crime occurs that seems to have been preceded by obvious warnings, the police get railed for failure to act. But when they do act preemptively, they find themselves defending against charges of racial profiling and discrimination. Although citizens have a right to monitor – to some extent – the ethics and effectiveness of law enforcement, we are not privy to every detail of their methodology and limitations. Put another way, you aren’t a cop and you don’t have all the facts, so stick a sock in it. To illustrate this Catch-22, I’ll give an example of pre- and post- profiling, with two possible outcomes for each.
Pre-Profiling: Officer Jones is patrolling a dangerous section of town at 01:30 when he notices a dark colored late model Honda driving slowly along a street known to police as a high drug trafficking area. Officer Jones can see at least three black males who he estimates to be under the age of 25 – the demographic responsible for roughly 90% of crimes in the neighborhood. As he watches, the car slowly drives up and back up the same street two more times. When the occupants spot the patrol car, they begin shifting nervously within the vehicle. At this point, Officer Jones has enough evidence to reasonably suspect that criminal activity is imminent and he proceeds to flash his blue lights and pull up behind the Honda. The car stops without hesitation and the driver immediately lowers his window.
Outcome #1: Officer Jones politely asks the occupants what brings them to this area in the wee morning hours. He explains that this particular street is notorious for illegal drug activity and that he stopped them because they exhibited behavior usually indicative of an impending drug transaction. The driver voluntarily presents his license, registration and proof of insurance and his passengers also hand over their IDs, all of which are valid. Upon closer inspection, the officer realizes that what had appeared to be nervous shifting was actually the occupants’ movement to reach their wallets. An address on a scrap of paper and further information from the driver reveals that the young men – two of which are brothers and the other a cousin – are visiting an uncle who lives on the street. In less than 5 minutes of straightforward questions and answers, Officer Jones is thoroughly convinced that the young men have legitimate reason to be there and had been driving back and forth because the house numbers aren’t clearly marked. He assists them in locating Uncle Marvin’s residence and reminds them to be cautious in such an unsafe neighborhood.
Outcome #2: Officer Jones politely asks the occupants what brings them to this area in the wee morning hours. He explains that this particular street is notorious for illegal drug activity and that he had stopped them because they exhibited behavior usually indicative of an impending drug transaction. The driver and passengers still appear extremely nervous, claiming to be visiting an uncle on the street. When asked for his license and registration, the driver says he left it at home. Officer Jones has reason to believe that the men are lying about their business in the area since they have no address information and can’t remember their “uncle’s” name. He can also smell the distinct odor of marijuana within the vehicle, so he radios for assistance and when two more officers arrive, they ask the occupants to step out. Each subject is questioned individually about their relationship to each other and about details concerning their uncle. Their stories quickly collapse, as they tell the officers they are all brothers and yet none of them can give the correct first and last names of the other two. After detecting the smell of marijuana, Officer Jones no longer needs a warrant or consent to search the entire vehicle as well as the occupants’ persons. A significant amount of crack-cocaine, packaged for distribution, is recovered from between the rear cushions of the car. The two passengers have large caliber pistols concealed in their waistbands and a sawed-off shotgun is found beneath the driver’s seat. The subjects all have prior drug trafficking convictions and the driver is wanted on a charge of attempted murder. All three occupants are arrested, and it is later learned that they had made threatening phone calls to a resident on the street – a former drug dealer turned FBI informant. The suspects had accused the man of “selling out” and according to a voicemail left by one of the passengers, they were coming to “shut him up for good.” In other words, if Officer Jones had not intervened, the occupants of the Honda would likely have killed an innocent man.
To drive this point home, let’s suppose that both outcomes conclude with the subjects’ allegation of “racial profiling” against Officer Jones (who is white), claiming they were singled out solely because they are African Americans. It is impossible to defend the officer’s actions in one outcome and not the other because his reasonable suspicion for the stop was established before either outcome occurred. In other words, the outcome of guilt or innocence of the suspects is irrelevant: either Officer Jones was right to pull over the Honda, or he was wrong. If you hold that he was wrong in both scenarios, do ask yourself what would have been necessary to justify his action. According to the law, he had all the evidence he needed.
Post-Profiling: At around 01:50, officers respond to calls of gunshots in a dangerous area of town. The demographic is an unfortunate blend of honest, hardworking homeowners and good-for-nothing thugs and drug dealers. Officer Jones arrives on the street and discovers that an apparent drive-by shooting had occurred. Dispatchers inform the officer that a male resident has been shot several times. As Officer Jones approaches the residence, he can hear the victim’s wife screaming. The man has been fatally wounded, with shots in his head and neck. After talking with family members and neighbors, police learn that the victim was formerly involved in drug trafficking but within the past two years had been cooperating with investigators to apprehend the criminals polluting the area. The victim was considered a traitor by the illegal drug community and had many enemies with motive. Unfortunately, because of the time of the shooting, there were no witnesses. Officer Jones sits down with a detective specializing in criminal (post) profiling. The neighborhood and drug rings with which the victim was associated are nearly 100% African American, so in this case, investigators are fairly certain of the race of the killers. Age was also an easy estimation, for the same reason. The guns used (determined from bullets extracted from the victim’s body) are weapons of choice for a particularly violent gang with an active presence in that part of the city. By analyzing multiple aspects of the crime and photos taken at the scene, police develop a detailed description of the likely suspects.
Outcome #1: Within three days, police detain three young black males for questioning. All three, however, have solid alibis, so the men are released. Over the next several weeks, 8 more young men who fit the profile are brought in for questioning, but nothing comes of it. Having reached a dead-end, the case is closed until many months later when an anonymous tip leads investigators to the victim’s killers. As it turns out, they are neither male nor African American, but female and Hispanic. These two women were angry because the victim planned to testify against their brother on charges of heroin smuggling. They have no prior criminal record and no other apparent trafficking involvement except for the connection through their brother.
Outcome #2: Within days, police arrest three young black males fitting the profiler’s description, and the men are charged with first degree murder. Two of the suspects are tight-lipped, but the third offers a full confession in exchange for a lesser punishment. The information he gives police enables them to recover the vehicle (a black 2007 Honda Accord) and weapons used in the shooting (a sawed-off shotgun and two Glock .45’s). All three suspects are indeed members of that violent gang and were angry because the victim had been planning to testify against them in federal court. The young men have extensive criminal records which include attempted murder. Apparently, they had cruised up and down the street several times to be sure they had the correct address, as the houses were not clearly marked. During that time, they had even encountered a patrol car in the neighborhood but he drove away without interfering. Officer Jones had been wrongfully accused of “racial profiling” in the past, so he had opted not to stop the car although he felt he should have. Now, he is deeply distressed to learn that his trepidation over pulling the vehicle had resulted in the murder of an innocent man.
Again, we suppose that everyone questioned in both Outcomes accuses the department of racial profiling, since the investigator predicted aspects of age, race and gender that led police to bring in the suspects that they did. Of course the Hispanic females wouldn’t have a case because they were brought in based on a caller’s tip and not a profile, but all of the young black males can technically claim that they were “targeted” or “profiled.” Not to say that those suspects have grounds for complaint, since they were released in a timely fashion without being charged. Most readers will have fewer objections to post- than pre-, but as depicted in Outcome #2 above, some sensible “racial” profiling might have prevented a murder.
As is customary, there will be backlash toward the department regardless of what officers do. If they profile, they’re racists; if they don’t, they’re lazy, worthless cops who can’t prevent or solve crimes (and racists to boot, if the victims happen to be minorities). It is important for the public to understand that what may seem like controversial techniques are actually necessary for the safety of our communities. When you picture your loved ones in place of the imaginary victim above, you should see profiling in a whole new light.