Racial Profiling in Law Enforcement

Racism and prejudice have had an impact on everyday life in society for thousands of years. In America, it began when white settlers first met Native Americans and took from them their land. For Africans, it began when the first slaves were brought here from Africa 375 years ago, continued after slavery with legal segregation for 100 years, and 50 or so years with the present civil rights movement (Wilkins, 1995). Black motorists were often stopped and detained in the 1960’s during the beginning of the civil rights era and causing many riots in protest of the profiling (Trende, 2000). Today, many stops have evolved into the reasoning that black motorists are trafficking drugs across state lines (Trende, 2000). However, the problem of racism is a general societal problem which filters through laws and administration. In local and state law enforcement, the issue of racial profiling has been very prominent among the general public with famous cases such as the Rodney King beating and New Jersey Turnpike incident.

According to Amnesty International, racial profiling occurs “when race is used by law enforcement or private security officials, to any degree, as a basis for criminal suspicion in non-suspect specific investigations” (“Racial profiling,” 2008). Despite the argument that racial disparity among police officers and citizens who have been in contact with them does not exist, there is sufficient evidence to prove that minorities are being singled-out by America’s law enforcement. Acknowledging the problem of racism in America’s law enforcement is necessary to take steps to eliminate the disparity among races by means of laws and training.

II. Evidence of Racial Profiling

A. Research Evidence

Numerous studies have been conducted to bring to light racial profiling in the United States. One such study involved interviewing black and white motorists. The idea was to gain a perspective on whether or not the police acted appropriately and legally during the stop. The researchers utilized data from the National Crime Victimization Study (NCVS) and narrowed the results from the 80,534 people total to 7,034 people stopped for traffic violations. Two-thirds of the black drivers pulled over felt they were stopped for legitimate reasons. This is compared to 80% of white drivers saying the same. 79% of blacks felt they were treated fairly, as opposed to whites responding 88% to the same question (Lundman, 2003). While the percentages seem comparable between white and black respondents, there is a disparity between the numbers which holds more than a coincidence.

According to other data, the percentage of both blacks and whites likely to be carrying contraband is the same (Lamberth, 1998). Police data that reports the number of searches and arrests shows that blacks are more likely to be in possession is disproportionate in the number of black drivers stopped and the number of non-blacks stopped. Maryland data showed that for every 1,000 searches, 200 blacks and 80 non-blacks were arrested. However, 713 black drivers were searched and only 287 non-blacks (Lamberth, 1998). Another shocking fact is that a black person is 16.5 times to be pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike (Lamberth, 1998).

Another study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, states that police actions taken during a traffic stop were not uniform across racial and ethnic categories. Black drivers were twice as likely as white drivers to be arrested during a traffic stop with a ratio of 4.5% to 2.1%. Hispanic drivers (65%) were more likely than white (56.2 %) or black (55.8 %) drivers to be issued a citation. The study also went on to show that whites (9.7%) were more likely than Hispanics (5.9%) to receive a written warning, while whites (18.6%) were more likely than blacks (13.7%) to be verbally warned by police (Robinson, 2007). However, the report goes on to state that the disparities between statistics “do not constitute proof that police treat people differently along demographic lines,” and that there are “countless other factors and circumstances” (Robinson, 2007).

B. Case Study

While the statistics clearly show a disparity, there are other cases which take profiling to another level. One such occurrence was on the New Jersey Turnpike. At around 11 o’clock PM on April 23, 1998, four youths were driving on the turnpike headed toward North Carolina. The occupants of the van, three black and one Hispanic, were pulled over for speeding. However, later evidence showed that there was not even any equipment such as radar in the vehicle to justify the officer’s claim. One of the two troopers came up to the driver’s side window with his firearm drawn. The other trooper was at the passenger side window with his baton drawn. The driver of the van accidentally placed the vehicle in reverse instead of park, which prompted the passenger side officer to smash the window and fire upon the boys. The van eventually rolled into a ditch and finally stopped there. The boys were pulled out of the vehicle, all still alive but suffering several gunshot wounds from the 12 rounds the officers fired. One of the boys was shot six times in the arm, which shattered bones in his arm. Regardless, he was handcuffed, stripped naked, and restrained even after a thorough search of the van discovered no illegal activity. One of the other boys was shot four times, and another was shot twice. The two New Jersey state troopers responsible for the incident were brought up on charges for attempted murder, aggravated assault, and for falsifying records of the profiled stops. However, a judge cleared them of all charges, stating that they were doing their jobs and were within jurisdiction (Revolutionary Worker, 2000).

C. Personal Experience

In Pennsylvania, racial profiling is a problem as well. The two major ethnic groups in Norristown are Hispanics and African Americans. While employed as an intern, the author had numerous opportunities to go on patrol and participate in various operations throughout the borough. One such operation, named “Buckle-Up PA” is a program designed to enforce seat belt usage and compliance with motor vehicle laws such as driver’s licenses, registration, and insurance coverage. While the operation has a sound purpose, locations of the checkpoints were chosen to target the Hispanic community. Areas of dense Hispanic population provided an abundance of violations of non-licensed drivers. While the legality of the checkpoint is intact, the premise behind the location of the checkpoints displays a subtle note of racial profiling. The mindset behind this idea is that most Hispanic residents are illegal and do not possess a valid drivers license, which while can be seen as racial profiling, is a matter of fact and was proved by the checkpoints. However, while on a different checkpoint, the racial profiling of the officers became more prominent since they could not hide behind a legitimate checkpoint.

Another state program named Operation: Smooth Operator is designed to reduce aggressive driving. In this operation, a Pennsylvania State Trooper uses radar to determine the speed of passing vehicles. Drivers are then pulled onto a side street where Norristown officers issue traffic tickets for speeding and other infractions. However, numerous times, the officer directing the speeders off to the side street would pull off Hispanic drivers regardless of whether or not they were speeding to check for a valid license. This is blatant racial profiling and the author witnessed the act first-hand. The difference between the racial profiling exists in the fact that in Buckle-Up PA, all drivers were checked for valid licensing. In the case of Operation: Smooth Operator, only drivers of Hispanic ethnicity were singled out while other ethnicities of drivers were allowed to continue.

III. Solutions to the Problem

A. Weighing the Costs

With studies and data showing clear evidence that there is racial disparity and evident racial discrimination within the criminal justice system, proof is available to show that this problem needs to be fixed. However, one of the biggest arguments against changing laws to protect minorities is that the effectiveness of policing will be diminished because police are justified in being more suspicious of people that are more likely to commit crimes. Since evidence proves that minorities are more likely to commit crimes since they are arrested and convicted of more crimes, the issue becomes a catch-22 (Trende, 2000). However, a counter-argument to this statement is the idea that since police are only looking for minorities to commit crimes, they only find minorities committing crimes (Trende, 2000). Researchers and politicians look at the monetary cost of profiling and come to conclusions that stopping it will be a reduced cost to law enforcement. However, the reduced cost will affect the very same people these laws are meant to protect. For example, since blacks commit more murders and drug offenses against other black people, reducing profiling will only hurt the black community overall (Trende, 2000). However, the moral and ethical costs of profiling will be eliminated if racial profiling is stopped.

B. Judicial Changes

One approach to solving this bias is dependent on the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Since many court cases are dependent on precedent of previous cases, the court system relies on older cases to make decisions. However, cases in involving unlawful search and seizure are tied strictly to the Fourth Amendment, disregarding the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law in precedent. According to Trende, “a court ruling that the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unconstitutional searches and seizures recognizes Fourteenth Amendment equal protection values simply would bring the Fourth Amendment in line with longstanding precedent” (2000). The process, known as “reverse selective incorporation” has been used by the Supreme Court in earlier cases and would bring the language of both amendments and our Constitutional traditions up to date and prevent further use of racial profiling as probable cause in the court system (Trende, 2000).

C. Prevention

Another method of stopping racial profiling is to eliminate it from those who employ it: the police. Police officers are given the right to discretion when handling incidents in the line of duty. Since discretion is based on education and personal experience, racial profiling stems from an officer. To combat poor and biased discretion, stricter standards employed during recruitment can be used to distinguish between those with poor discretion or prejudice and those with reasonable discretion and openness to discretionary training (Matrofski, 2004). Stopping the flow of pre-biased officers into law enforcement agencies would be a rational first step in eliminating racial profiling. Once recruits are deemed to have the appropriate skills, further training and street-level situational education can be used to enhance the already skilled recruits. Once out of training, officers could receive agency training to develop a better community-wide relationship with citizens in an effort to both reduce or eliminate racial profiling and improve enforcement ideals through community policing (Matrofski, 2004). Another method of controlling discretion is to impose sanctions on officers if they stray from an agency’s prohibition of racial profiling. However, since this is an action which relies on cause and effect rather than prevention, racial profiling would be more likely to continue (Matrofski, 2004). However, employing preventative measures in combination with controlling illegal profiling acts would be the most efficient way to put an end to racial profiling.

IV. Conclusion

Racial profiling in America has been an accepted practice in law enforcement throughout history. There have been many studies proving its existence while facing an argument from professionals in the field that it does not exist and still other people that know of its existence and use and feel that it is necessary to perform law enforcement tasks. Despite the arguments from all sides, evidence has shown that racial profiling is detrimental to the civil rights and safety of minorities. With the acknowledgment that profiling exists, the need for a change in public policy and training techniques for those in a position of power becomes evident. America and its goal of an equal society can come one step closer once racial profiling and racial bias is eliminated.