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Racial Profiling: A Pragmatic Approach

Objective characteristics such as age, gender, race and ethnicity must be taken into account during an investigation.

April 08, 2011  |  by Rob Von Kaenel

Racial profiling is narrowly defined as any police action such as arrest, search, contact or detention that was solely based on the person's race or ethnicity rather than their behavior. Legal precedent has declared this as unconstitutional.  

However, the broader definition of racial profiling is quite different and when used properly is a valid and effective investigative tool that doesn't infringe on civil rights. Under this definition, race and ethnicity are two of many elements used when determining who to detain, question, arrest or search. Additional factors could include age, time of day, location, clothing and any other characteristic of a suspect which, given the totality of the circumstances, supports law enforcement action. Case law supports racial profiling as long as it is not the only reason for police contact or action.  

Advocates of racial profiling contend that it's a necessary tool during 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 shouldn't be discounted simply because it was based partly on the subject's race or ethnicity.

Also, 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 be contacted by 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 racial profiling in this manner doesn't protect the public and delays apprehension of a suspect.

Critics of racial profiling contend that it encourages unjustified detentions, "fishing expeditions," unlawful arrests and erosion of the public's civil rights. Opponents allege that any law enforcement strategy that focuses on 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 weak argument is based 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 percent of the population doesn't mean that this group will be involved in 10 percent of criminal activity.

It's simplistic to assume that all ethnic groups commit crime at the same rate that they constitute the population. Some groups, for various socioeconomic reasons, are overly represented in the crime statistics. 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. Ignoring this phenomenon only hinders the public-policy debate about effective crime control and police methodologies.

An article published in the "Journal of Political Economy" used the following equation to test the veracity of racial profiling. 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: nine from race X and one from race Y. If race is not used as one of the factors in searching for suspects, there's only a 10 percent probability that any of the suspects will be apprehended.

However, if the people of race X are targeted, the odds increase to 18 percent. In this example, race and ethnicity play a significant role in identifying the suspects. When racial profiling is applied to a multicultural 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 racial profiling 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's 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 shouldn't 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 racial profiling forces law enforcement agencies to ignore clearly observable traits of a suspect that are germane in furthering an investigation, then we run the risk of sacrificing justice at the altar of political correctness.

Robert Von Kaenel is a Special Agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration. He is a field training agent and defensive tactics instructor.

Tags: Racial Profiling

Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

Capt David (ret) @ 4/12/2011 9:16 AM

If racial profiling is so bad then why do we still have the most egregious one- affirmative action? It profiles minorities all the time. Racial profiling can be a cop's best friend. Tough luck if someone is offended by it.

Michael @ 4/12/2011 5:37 PM

Well, it is what it is. Not to say that It is right to stop just minorities because thats not the case either. You must remember that any action you take may be judged later and you must keep that thought while you're working at all times. It is not fair when they turn the circumstances into a "racial incident". Trying to be a good cop is not easy today, but remember what you were taught in the academy "PC". If you can show it, you are justified in your actions. Don't make it personal either, good documentation will save your ass later. I've been in cases were my report or fi card saved me later.

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