Racial Profiling

VI. General History of Racial Profiling

The overall history of race relations in the United States remains pertinent to discussions of racial profiling. The second-class citizenship of black Americans was enforced by white police officers throughout the Jim Crow era, and extralegal suppression of the rights of citizenship continued well beyond the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) decision. Passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act coincided with the rise of black militancy, and continued conflict between blacks and whites continued well into the decade of the 1970s.

While mainstream American culture has changed dramatically since the “long, hot summers” of racial conflict in the 1960s, police culture changes slowly. There is a lingering suspicion that both police training and the police socialization process subtly perpetuate outmoded racial attitudes from that era. When racial profiling first emerged as a public issue, this view was reinforced by revelations in the high-profile cases discussed below. Though America’s police forces are no longer a “white boys’ club,” that observation merely transfers animus—if any exists—from a white prejudice to a police prejudice.

VII. Contemporary History of Racial Profiling

The U.S. Customs Service originally developed a profile of air travelers who had elevated probability of being a drug “mule.” Like their equine namesake, drug mules were not drug lords, but beasts of burden: persons unconnected with a drug cartel’s membership (and therefore relatively invisible to police narcotics intelligence) were paid on a one-time basis to carry drug packages in their luggage on international flights, and deliver it to cartel personnel soon after their arrival in the United States. Specific conditions and behaviors were tip-offs to Customs personnel to inquire and examine carry-on luggage more closely: Lone travelers with luggage inappropriate to their itinerary, flying with tickets purchased with cash, and several other elements were central to the original airline passenger profile.

In 1984, Operation Pipeline adapted the practice to police highway drug interdiction, which sought to intercept bulk drugs in transit from southern points of entry. Seizing bulk drugs before they could be delivered, cut, and distributed in northern drug markets would reduce supplies for the street markets, deprive the drug syndicates of profits, and perhaps drive more addicts into treatment.

Operation Pipeline arose from police awareness that vehicle stops yielding large quantities of drugs shared certain characteristics. The vehicles were northbound at high rates of speed, usually occupied by two black or Latino males in their late teens or early twenties. Vehicle interiors contained fast-food wrappers and pillows and blankets (both indicative of nonstop travel), and detergent or other strong-smelling substances to mask the odor of drugs. The trunk might be locked, with only a valet key for the drivers; there might be tool or burn marks or other indications that drugs had been secreted in hidden compartments. Roadmaps might indicate places and timetables to call the drivers’ monitor (Buerger & Farrell, 2002).

The profile alone did not constitute probable cause for the police to conduct a warrantless search. It was only a prompt for officers to pay closer attention to the vehicle, to develop probable cause if possible, or to obtain consent to search the car in the absence of specific probable cause.

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