A car is pulled over, a pedestrian stopped, a traveler pulled out of line. If the person is being singled out on the basis of a category — race, ethnicity, religion — rather than a specific action, the incident might be an example of profiling, a law-enforcement tactic that’s been used, and debated, for decades. Or it might just be discrimination. Separating the two can be hard. Polls show that whites and nonwhites have different views on the fairness of U.S. law enforcement. In December 2014, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder became the latest in a series of federal officials attempting to limit profiling. Holder said the practice corrodes trust in the police, an important factor at a time of public anger over cases in which officers who killed unarmed black men faced no charges.
Loretta Lynch, the federal prosecutor nominated to be Holder’s successor, says she plans to make reducing tensions between police and their communities a top priority. The guidelines issued by Holder go beyond those issued by President George W. Bush in 2003. Bush barred federal agents from considering race or ethnicity as a factor in routine investigations; the new rules add gender, national origin, religion and sexual orientation. The federal rules don’t cover border patrols near the nation’s southwestern boundary or the screening of airline passengers. While laws restrict racial profiling in 30 states, there’s no uniform standard regulating local police departments, whose officers make the vast majority of arrests. New York City is dealing with the fallout of its stop-and-frisk program, which ballooned from less than 100,000 police stops in 2002 to almost 700,000 in 2011. In 2013, a federal judge ruled that the program violated the rights of minority residents, who made up roughly 90 percent of those stopped. In France, Arabs and blacks filed civil suits over police stops, but the cases were dismissed in 2013 when they were unable to prove the actions were motivated by race. A 2009 study found that Arabs and blacks in Paris were eight times as likely to be stopped as whites.
Profiling as a law enforcement practice drew attention in the 1970s and 1980s in the effort to fight drug trafficking. The idea was to give extra scrutiny to the behavior of people who fit a profile of groups thought to be active in the trade. To some, its real effect was to make a crime out of driving while black. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of profiling in a 1996 ruling, saying race could be used as a criterion for police activity so long as it was not the only one. After New Jersey state troopers shot three young unarmed black and Hispanic men during a routine traffic stop in 1998, the state’s attorney general agreed to a $13 million settlement. The use of profiling expanded after the Sept. 11 attacks, leading to increased surveillance of Muslims in the U.S. and across the world.
Supporters of profiling say it works when it’s based on solid evidence that certain traits are linked to higher rates of crime. New York City police officials argued that stop-and-frisk tactics cut crime by targeting suspicious activities in high-crime areas. In Israel, security officials says highly targeted profiling is why no flights have been hijacked out of its airports for more than three decades. Focusing attention on members of ethnic groups who have been most involved in terrorist attacks, they say, is putting limited security resources to their best use. Critics say that policing based on group characteristics is ineffective as well as discriminatory. Neither of the two men who came closest to blowing up U.S. airliners since 9/11 were Arab, they say. And New York City’s data showed that stops of blacks and Hispanics were half as likely to turn up a weapon as stops of whites. Some local police departments are trying to respond to complaints through recruiting to make their forces more reflective of the communities they serve; others would rather rely on diversity training. In a speech in February, U.S. FBI Director James Comey said the nation must also have an honest dialogue about what he called the deep-rooted racial biases that have frayed the relationship between local police and the communities they serve.
The Reference Shelf
- A 2012 Congressional Research Service report on the legal and constitutional issues of racial profiling.
- “The New Jim Crow,” a 2014 book by law professor Michelle Alexander on the mass incarceration of African Americans.
- Reports on the issue by the NAACP, the Leadership Conference and the ACLU. The New York Civil Liberties Union analyzed New York City’s stop and frisk program.
- A summary of a study of Israel’s profiling practices in its airport security.
- The National Institute of Justice’s guide to research on racial profiling.
First published Jan. 28, 2015
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