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Profiling: Suddenly Politically Correct?

In the wake of the WTC and Pentagon attacks, has it become ‘okay’ to profile certain kinds of criminals?

December 01, 2001  |  by Roy Huntington

When a shopper wanders up to the return desk at the local K-Mart, a delicate drama unfolds.

The shopper sizes up the clerk behind the desk and wonders how successful the pending transaction might be. The clerk looks frustrated, tired and seems to be acting cranky. The shopper notes how the clerk snaps a quick rebuke to a co-worker and then, with a sigh of disgust, resumes her dealing with the customer.

Waiting patiently in line, the shopper sidesteps to the next return line. There, at the desk, is a young man with a big smile on his face as he greets the next customer in line. Perhaps the shopper doesn't realize it, but he just profiled both clerks behind the counter.

An older man stops for gasoline in a neighborhood station. It's early evening and business is slow. As he walks to the small store to pay, he notices a lowered Nissan drive into the station, playing music with a loud bass beat thumping through the open windows.

As he pays, he notes with some concern that four Asian youths pile out and, with much pushing and shoving, walk toward the store. The man quickly gets his change and, with pounding heart, walks quickly past the youths, hurriedly pumps his gas and leaves. Profiling at work.

Meanwhile, the youths, on a break from a local church class, thank the clerk inside and return to gas up their car. The driver, baggy clothes and all, works full time to afford the car yet still goes to night school. He wonders why the guy who just left seemed rude.

Officer Murphy noticed the lowered Nissan as it pulled from the gas station. He had been seeing what he believed was an influx of Asian gang members in the community, apparently moving in from the large city nearby. He called for a cover unit as the Nissan broke traction, chirping a tire slightly as it left the station.

Murphy and his cover unit made the stop a short time later. The Nissan had illegal lens covers on its rear lights, giving him probable cause for the stop. Murphy had been on the job for over 18 years and had a reputation for fairness, honesty and solid police work. After making contact, Murphy realized they weren't gang members, wrote a citation for the lens covers and warned the driver about his tire-chirping incident.

Good or Bad Police Work?

As can be seen, virtually everyone "profiles" at some level. From your daughter trying to read your face for your answer to her request for new shoes to a hardened gang cop watching, squinty-eyed, while gang members transact what he believes to be a drug deal across the street.

In light of the recent World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, has the public's perception and acceptance of profiling changed? Indeed, should police stand firm and not be afraid to admit that profiling can be a powerful tool in apprehending criminals ... and terrorists?

In February 2001 President Bush said, "Racial profiling is wrong and we will end it in America." But what is profiling and when does race enter into the picture? Indeed, how often is race an important part of a profile? What if officers see a filthy 1972 Oldsmobile sedan with a loud muffler, driven by a white male, prison tattoos visible on his upper arms, dirty hair pulled into a ponytail, drooping mustache and nervous looks?

Do they have a right to keep digging, looking for a possible felon on parole, felon at large or possible methamphetamine bust? Is the fact the subject is white as opposed to black, Asian or female an important part of the events leading up to a potential stop? You bet.

Are the officers racist, showing evidence of assumed guilt simply because the subject is white? For the sake of argument, let's rename profiling "building a case" and go from there. In that case, would an officer who sees the above car and driver be correct in his assumption there is a high likelihood the driver was a felon or parolee, possibly had no valid driver's license and may have drugs in the car? How would the officer know such things? Obviously, from prior experience.

However, is there any reason the officer couldn't have gotten the same kind of information from a training class explaining the many traits exhibited by a wide cross-section of criminal types? And if so, why is that wrong? If an officer weighs the entirety of a situation and race is but one of many factors, is he guilty of "racial profiling" or simply good police work?

Another Opinion

Heather MacDonald, a writer well versed in profiling issues, said in a recent article entitled "The Myth of Racial Profiling" in the City Journal (Spring 2001, Vol. 11, No.2): "Two meanings of 'racial profiling' intermingle in the activists' rhetoric. What we may call 'hard' profiling uses race as the only factor in assessing criminal suspiciousness: An officer sees a black person and, without more to go on, pulls him over for a pat-down on the chance he may be carrying drugs or weapons."

Does this same thinking apply to Middle Eastern "suspicious" persons now? If so, is it more politically correct to use "hard" profiling when dealing with possible terrorists? MacDonald goes on to explain that "soft" racial profiling is using race as one factor among many other probable cause elements to determine the need for a stop.

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