Racial Profiling – A Pragmatic Approach
Racial or ethical profiling is perhaps one of the most controversial issues in the criminal justice arena. The generally accepted and narrow definition of racial/ethical profiling (RP) is any police action such as arrest, search, contact or detention which was solely based on the person’s race or ethnicity rather than on the individual’s behavior. Legal precedence exists which has declared this narrow definition of RP as being unconstitutional.
However, the broader definition of RP is quite different and when used properly RP is a valid and effective investigative tool which does not infringe upon civil rights. The broader definition of RP states that race and ethnicity are just two of many elements used when determining who to detain, question, arrest or search. Additional factors used in conjunction with race/ethnicity could be age, time of day, location, clothing and any other characteristic of a suspect which, given the totality of the circumstances, supports the action of law enforcement personnel. Case law has supported RP as long as it is not the only reason (narrow definition) for a police contact or similar action.
Advocates of RP contend that it is a necessary tool when conducting an investigation. Law enforcement officers rely on their training and experience when developing a case and if their expertise leads them to believe that a subject is involved in, or about to be involved in criminal activity, this belief should not be discounted simply because it was based partly on the subject’s race or ethnicity. Moreover, if an individual resembles a suspect because of shared characteristics such as a limp, physical build, tattoos or other commonalities including race or ethnicity, logic dictates that this individual should be contacted be law enforcement. Any conscious effort not to use objective attributes exhibited by a suspect degrades the investigative process and may needlessly enlarge the suspect pool. Disregarding RP in this manner does nothing to protect the public and will inevitably delay the apprehension of a suspect.
Critics of RP contend that it encourages unjustified detentions, “fishing expeditions”, unlawful arrests and will inevitably lead to an erosion of the public’s civil rights. RP opponents allege that any law enforcement strategy which focuses upon race or ethnicity is inherently faulty and will result in disproportionately higher arrests for a minority group even though the particular minority group might be under represented in the general population. This is a weak argument since it is predicated on the false assumption that all minorities will commit crime at a rate equal to their presence in the population at large. Just because a certain group makes up 10% of the population does not mean that this group will be involved in 10% of all criminal activity. Some groups, for various socio-economic reasons, are overly represented in the crime statistics. It is simplistic to assume that all racial and ethnic groups will commit crime at the same rate which they constitute the population. In fact, it would be prejudicial to deny the reality that various groups might be involved in crime at a significantly higher or lower rate than other groups. To ignore this phenomenon is intellectually dishonest and hinders the public policy debate regarding effective crime control and police methodologies.
An article published in the Journal of Political Economy used the following equation to test the veracity of RP. Assume that a population of 100 people is divided equally between 50 people of race X and 50 people of race Y. There are 10 suspects who committed a crime: 9 from race X and 1 from race Y. If race is not used as one of the factors in searching for suspects there is only a 10% probability that any of the suspects will be apprehended. However, if the people of race X are targeted, the odds increase to 18%. In this example, race and ethnicity play a significant role in identifying the suspects. When RP is applied to a multi-cultural populace consisting of numerous racial and ethnic groups, the race and ethnicity of a suspect are relevant factors which should be considered during the course of an investigation.
Opposition to RP seems to be driven largely by anecdotal evidence or internal bias. Policing techniques should not be scrutinized using an arbitrary and preconceived notion of what is morally acceptable in the absence of supporting data. Any valid indicator of criminal behavior must be recognized even if some find it offensive or contrary to their personal belief system.
Law enforcement personnel must be allowed to exercise their professional judgment and use personal observations of a suspect during the course of their duties. Limits should not be placed on a police officer’s observations simply because some critics erroneously claim that the content and substance of these observations could be racist in nature. Objective characteristics such as age, gender, race and ethnicity must be taken into account as part of a comprehensive investigative approach if these characteristics have clearly been shown to be associated with subjects believed to be involved in criminal activity. If the desire not to offend those opposed to RP forces law enforcement agencies to ignore clearly observable traits of a suspect which are germane in furthering an investigation, then we run the risk of sacrificing justice at the altar of political correctness.
—Rob Von Kaenel
The article is applicable to investigators and patrol officers.
Rob Von Kaenel has 19 years of law enforcement experience – 5 years as a police officer and 14 years as a Special Agent with the DEA. He has a BS degree in Criminology and an MS degree in Administration of Justice. Rob Von Kaenel has worked domestically and was also stationed in South America with the DEA for several years. By virtue of his education and work history he has an insight to the proper use of racial profiling and its worth in the criminal justice arena.