Racial Profiling


I. Introduction

II. Two Perspectives on Racial Profiling

III. Disparity or Discrimination?

IV. Profiling Generally

V. Basic Legal Foundations

VI. General History of Racial Profiling

VII. Contemporary History of Racial Profiling

VIII. The Flagship Cases in Racial Profiling

IX. Four Salient Issues in Racial Profiling

A. The Legitimacy of Suspicion

B. Scientific Proof

C. Balance of Harms

D. Precision of Application

X. Research on Racial Profiling

XI. Conclusion and Bibliography

I. Introduction

Racial profiling is a disputed term, embodying either a pernicious police practice or an intelligent application of police investigative skills, depending upon ideological perspective. It is most commonly understood in the former context, a shorthand for unfair police targeting of persons of minority groups for greater scrutiny and intervention, based solely upon the belief that members of their ethnic group are more inclined to engage in criminal activity. The contemporary term has a specific history anchored in drug interdiction efforts (Buerger & Farrell, 2002), but its informal synonym, “driving while black” (or brown), predates drug interdiction, stemming from the racial and ethnic animus of earlier eras.

The debate is defined at one pole by a belief that racial prejudice leads to disparate treatment of minority citizens. At the other pole, the fundamental belief is that disparate attention by the authorities is fully justified by the different patterns of conduct by different groups, specifically documented rates of criminality. A third, complicated rationale lies between the two: a legacy of belief, embedded in police socialization and reinforced by selective perception, that minority groups are more prone to criminality. That middle ground ignores class distinctions that are masked by visible racial or ethnic identity.

More recently, the concept of racial profiling (as either allegation or practice) has expanded beyond its original framework to include anti-terror activities and immigration law enforcement, as well as scrutiny by private security in shopping malls and other venues. Scientific inquiry intended to confirm or refute the existence of bias has a wide range of methodological difficulties, and studies to date have produced mixed empirical evidence.

II. Two Perspectives on Racial Profiling

Police and their supporters assert that profiling represents a legitimate practice grounded in criminal behavior, to which race is incidental. Profiles arose from patterns of observable behavior, verified and sustained by convictions in courts of law. Successful searches based upon the profiles validate the general application of profiles as an investigative tool. The police continue to make periodic seizures of large quantities of uncut, bulk drugs during motor vehicle stops, which in their eyes is proof that the profile technique is a valid law enforcement tool.

Opponents tend to regard the successful interdictions as little more than the blind squirrel stumbling across an acorn by chance. While not rejecting the importance of drug interdiction, critics hold that the greater danger lies in rampant, unjustified, and unrestricted government intrusion into the lives of citizens. They note that the verification of the profiles’ accuracy has never been independently verified, and insist that the occasional triumphs must be judged in the context of the larger number of stops that yield no results whatsoever. Critics also point to a growing body of testimonial evidence that police stop vehicles with none of the attributes of the operational profile save that of the driver’s race. A more critical figure, the number of incidents based upon closer matches to the profile and still yielding no drugs or contraband, has not yet been quantified.

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