Overview of Racial Profiling and Its Use in Police Practices

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Introduction

Is racial profiling happening in America today? Do certain ethnic groups get targeted more than others? These are some of the many controversial yet frequently asked questions today. It is often the topic on our nightly newscasts and debated by politicians. Merriam Webster’s definition of profiling is “the act or process of extrapolating information about a person based on known traits or tendencies”. Their definition of racial profiling is “the use of race or ethnicity as grounds for suspecting someone of having committed an offense”. This paper will look at the history of racial profiling, the laws that have influenced this topic, and its relation to police practices.

History

Racial profiling is not a new issue, rather it dates back to the time of slavery. During the 16th century, African Americans were, “considered the property of their masters based on a view that they were naturally unequal and inferior people” (Rocque, 2011). In 1963, the Philadelphia Court system granted the police the ability to apprehend any African American whether free or enslaved. This provides an excellent example of one of the first instances of racial profiling. One of the outcomes of the Union victory in the Civil War was that the Confederates were forced to recognize the federal government and all of its laws which included acknowledging slaves as free and granted all people equal protection as declared by the Emancipation Proclamation. Unfortunately, these federal laws existed but many of the states passed their own laws which defeated the federal intentions. These state laws known as the Jim Crow laws were a way for the states to regain control of the slaves and lower their status. As indicated by M. Roque, “Many states passed Jim Crow laws, which had the effect of maintaining forms of discrimination in legal, social, and economic forums” (Rocque, 2011). It wasn’t until the mid-1900s that these laws began to fade and the courts began to develop a new reform. M. Roque also stated, “In the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the Supreme Court struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine, and the civil rights acts passed in the mid-20th century attempting to restate and reinforce a policy against segregation” (Roque, 2011). The passing of this act made illegal discrimination towards race, religion, sex, or national origin in public facilities. It is not only the African Americans that suffered under discrimination but also included such groups as Latinos, American Indians, and Alaska Natives. While these improved laws now exist unfortunately discrimination has not died and has led to racial bias and targeting based on ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation.

As indicated by Dr. Kamalu, “The phrase ‘racial profiling’ has been primarily used to denote police bias and stereotypes in its law enforcement practices on the basis of racial and ethnic consideration” (Kamalu, 2016). In the 1980s, the use of drugs, specifically cocaine, was growing. This was the beginning of the “war on drugs” and a key example of contemporary use of racial profiling. It was a common thought that minorities were the primary users of illegal drugs. Based on that theory, minorities were targeted by law enforcement agencies in searching for drugs or information on the sale and movement of drugs. The feelings by society were that “the stereotypical association of minorities as the primary users of cocaine by the majority population driven by negative popular media coverage of the issue reinforced the notion that Black and Hispanic minorities, especially males are criminals” (Kamalu, 2016). The 4th Amendment to the Constitution grants citizens the protection against unwarranted searches of their private residences, belongings, or being. This use of racial profiling sparked many court cases in the 1980s. It highlighted the legality of certain searches and arrests and the beginning of the controversial debate over racial profiling.

Conflict Theory

There is a thought process that assumes society is always in a state of conflict, this is known as the Conflict Theory and was originally developed by Karl Marx. These theorists believe that those with the power are in charge and use the government and its laws to keep this power. As stated in the article Conflict Theory and Racial Profiling: An empirical analysis of police traffic stop data, “In essence, laws are made which serve the interests of the privileged and the police are used to suppress and control any segment of society that poses a threat to the status quo (Black, 1976, Dahrendorf, 1959, Quinney, 1970, Turk, 1969, Vold, 1958)”. If you follow this theory and its presumptions, you assume that conflict will always be present among the classes and the highest in society will utilize the police to protect their interests. Typically, those in power are the wealthy and the majority leaders while the minorities are the lower classes. These theorists go on to assume that more police presence will be located near the minority classes in order to “keep them under control” and then there will be higher arrests, etc. in the lower classes. (Petrocelli, Piquero & Smith, 2003). Many studies have been conducted relative to conflict theory and police practices. Conflict theorists argue that these studies indicate the support of their theories. Although conflict theory relative to racial profiling data is limited, the article suggests there is a correlation between the theory and an increase in stops of minority groups. (Petrocelli, Piquero & Smith, 2003).

In this same article, they site a study of racial profiling done in Washington, DC which they state highlighted a focus on young African American Males. It claims the following was found, “that the Rapid Deployment Unit, a unit designed to target drugs and potential riots, seemed to focus their efforts on the “urban ghetto,” an area of Washington where 40 percent of the Black population lives below the poverty level”. (Petrocelli, Piquero & Smith, 2003). Conflict theorists continue to defend their views but much evaluation of outside factors should be considered when evaluating their information.

Police Practices

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The job of the police is to protect and serve their community. Their presence should help to not only solve crimes but deter criminals as well and become an integral part of their community. They should not be seen as the enemy. In this vain, the idea of “community policing” is growing and having success. Why then is this the topic of racial profiling and police use such a hot topic and what is spurring it on? This topic tends to creep up more when looking at felonies and misdemeanors and the methods police use when conducting a stop and search.

Police involvement in solving a crime can be placed on a spectrum. First, they can be involved by either being called directly by a victim or by coming across a crime as it is being committed. In this situation, they investigate and act based on testimony and evidence found. Secondly, they can become involved when there is a crime against the state. For example, a violation of a traffic law. Finally, police work to try and deter crime before it happens. This final method’s ideology is that the presence of police or the consequences of committing a crime will prevent a person from committing that crime. As you move across this spectrum, the use of hard facts to make a decision to one of conjecture increases (del Pozo, 2001). This is where a grey area develops. For example, one goal of a police department is to prevent crime. The police cannot be everywhere so how do you decide what areas are best to target or whether or not to conduct a search while not crossing the line into racial profiling? This is a major dilemma.

There is a large debate over the use of racial profiling by police officers today. There are supporters who claim the practice is productive and not meant to be a racial item but rather it utilizes the laws of probability in trying to factor out the most likely scenario. They also feel it is justifiable since the end result, to lessen crime, is a moral reason. Those against racial profiling claim that certain minority groups are being unfairly targeted and it is a form of discrimination. They feel it infringes upon your own rights as a citizen of the United States.

Racial Profiling Today

The topic of race has become more common in policing discussions today. The decision to search a car, home or being is a tough call by a police officer. If they suspect foul behavior it could prevent a crime but could also lead to a claim of racial bias. If a community feels the police are utilizing racial profiling it can cause tension and distrust within the community. Today the courts system has enacted some legislation to help protect control racial profiling. In 2001, Congress introduced legislation to end racial profiling but the bill lost support after the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Some states have enacted “stop and identify” laws. The laws vary from state to state but in general allow an officer to detain a suspect and require identification to be provided.

There have been some studies done to determine the extent of racial profiling in the United States. Many agencies are now collecting data on their stops. To date results have been conflicting. Reviewing stop and search data is important as it can ensure the correct charges were given but also that the rules for probable cause were followed by an officer. For example, a study was done using Rhode Island Police Traffic Stop data. Upon initial review, one could conclude that racial profiling was being used. Of those stopped, the number of African American men was 53% higher than the number of Caucasian men. Yet when further researched the following was found, “Use of independent variables such as time of day, the age of the driver, and the predominant race of the neighborhood eliminated evidence of racial bias” (Anthony, Grossi & Higgins, 2018).

Conclusion

Despite the studies, creation of laws, changing practices of the police, racial profiling related to police practices continues to be a topic of much research and debate. Racial bias or discrimination cannot be tolerated. At the same time, the methods that police use when making decisions must also be considered. A high crime neighborhood may be more likely to be patrolled because law enforcement’s job is to monitor and guard the citizens of their community. As we continue to move towards the future, law makers, citizens and law enforcement need to work together. The sooner we realize that we are all on the same side of the issue, the more reasonable it is to expect meaningful change and adoption of best practices.

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