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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

While the racial profiling debate focuses primarily on highway stops, urban area police departments suffer the same scrutiny the state troopers endure. MacDonald continues with the core issue at hand: "A typical study purports to show that minority motorists are subject to disproportionate traffic stops. Trouble is, no one yet has devised an adequate benchmark against which to measure if police are pulling over, searching, or arresting 'too many' blacks and Hispanics. The question must always be: Too many compared with what?"

Cops go where the crime is. When white club owners were primary participants in the Ecstasy trade, that's who the cops were arresting. Ditto for black gang members selling crack, white "biker" gangs engaged in the meth trade or Jamaican gangs transporting narcotics over the highways of New Jersey. There is a hue and cry for "stop data" and, indeed, Attorney General John Ashcroft has encouraged these data-gathering studies.

Yet, until there are adequate data collection methods that can take into consideration criminal activities, police deployment patterns, population patterns and densities and the often subjective, regional policing methods in effect in the field, such studies are virtually without merit. Additionally, they can often encourage chest thumping and finger pointing by self-proclaimed activists, all based on nonsensical data. Agencies should be very careful before entering into such programs.

A Frustrated Chief

Ed Flynn, chief of police for Virginia's Arlington County, responded to a citizen-based hue and cry for heavier drug enforcement in a black neighborhood. According to MacDonald, Flynn put together an effective program to combat the crime and by the end of summer, had cleaned up the problem areas.

The citizens were thankful, but, according to Flynn: "We had also just generated a lot of data showing 'disproportionate' minority arrests." According to MacDonald, the irony -- in Flynn's view -- is acute. "We are responding to heartfelt demands for increased police presence," he said. "But this places police departments in the position of producing data ... that can be used against them."

Flynn went on: "Police develop tactics in response to the disproportionate victimization of minorities by minorities and they call the tactics the problem?" Some agencies have responded to the profiling wars by simply ceasing to encourage or endorse any kind of profiling information. Are drug dealers in a certain sector mostly black (or white, or Hispanic or whatever) and drive lowered cars?

Just don't say it. Don't notice it, don't teach it and don't train it. Many officers have also adopted a "hands off" attitude. "If I see a black man in a car commit a traffic infraction," a motor cop from the Midwest remarked wryly, "I won't stop them anymore. Too much heat. I'm tired of the fight. I don't have video on my bike to document the stop. They win."

With the recent terrorist attacks profiling has once again become a hot issue. How "correct" is it for cops to use profiling (just like the DEA, FBI and other agencies use it) to watch for potential terrorists? At airports, law enforcement and security personnel are taught to watch for certain traits -- paying for a ticket in cash, no luggage, Middle Eastern descent, nervousness, etc., -- to alert them to potential terrorists. Why is this suddenly approved conduct for law enforcement but using the same tactics to profile a drug dealer is not appropriate?

According to a recent Time/CNN poll taken after the September 11th attack, 29% of those interviewed thought it would be appropriate to allow law enforcement to stop people on the street for random searches. About 33% said they have become more careful to monitor people in their community who might be acting suspiciously or out of the ordinary (profiling?) and 49% said they would approve requiring U.S. citizens of Arab descent to carry an identification card issued by the Federal Government. All because a few people of Arab descent committed crimes.

How does this correlate to the street cop who uses soft profiling to paint a picture of a potential criminal before nabbing them? Profiling has become rife with political correctness and until the recent attacks, any attempt to conduct "hard" stops on people of Middle Eastern descent would have been met with an outcry of "racism" and worse.

Now the tide of public opinion has changed. Suddenly it's "okay" to profile some, but not others. Indeed, is the division between law enforcement -- who overwhelmingly simply see "good" people and "bad" people and are color-blind -- and those who simply see race an unbridgeable chasm? Why does such a dramatic cross-section of the public fail to grasp the simple observation that profiling is done continuously, over most every facet of life, for a wide range of reasons and is a common thread for all walks of life?

Law enforcement simply uses this simple tool on an equal footing, white, black, Hispanic and, now, Middle Eastern, as part of a complicated equation needed to find the "bad" people. When our society finally realizes it should be politically correct to stop crime, the wasted energy now spent by those pounding their fists against racial profiling will be better spent taking action against those same "bad" people the cops are already trying to stop.

Concentration on the goal at hand (catching criminals and terrorists) combined with a lowered level of sensitivity is in order. All of which can be done with no loss of personal freedoms; simply a heightened tolerance of and appreciation for what needs to be done to reach the goal.

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