Profiling: Suddenly Politically Correct?

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.

Roy Huntington Headshot

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.[PAGEBREAK]

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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