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Racial Profiling: What is it, exactly?

Racial profiling is a topic at the center of many discussions regarding racial justice today. Read about what it is, how it originated, and where we are today.

The Definition

Racial profiling can be defined as “the law enforcement practice of using race, ethnicity, national region, or religious appearance as one factor, among others, when police decide which people are suspicious enough to warrant police stops, questioning, frisks, searches and other routine police practices.”

This definition does not require that racial or ethnic appearance act as the main factor that motivates what an officer does because such a slim origin would define racial profiling out of existence because few, if any, law enforcement encounters occur based on a single factor. That being said, using a reasonably detailed description that includes the race of a suspect who has been observed is not racial profiling.

For example, if a witness describes the person being a male, Black, with brown hair, 6 feet tall, around the ages of 25-30 years old, wearing a white T-shirt and white converse, and having a beard, the officer(s) using this description does not account for racial profiling. As it has been said, race, in the context of a reasonably well-detailed description, is a better descriptor than any clothing worn or facial hair because a suspect can easily change both of those but racial appearance cannot.

Operation Pipeline

Operation Pipeline was a program that began in 1986 and used millions of dollars in federal funding to train police from all over the country in the fine points of profiling. The officers that were trained would then return to their departments and train others in order to set up prohibited units. According to the DEA, they denied ever using racial and ethnic appearance as a main factor in any of its training but, on the other hand, there was evidence found showing otherwise. “Once Pipeline tactics made it into the training and tactics of police forces around the country, police targeting of black drivers became systematic and common” and this was mostly seen and used in New Jersey and Maryland. In the early 1990s, state troopers in both New Jersey and Maryland had taken Operation Pipeline’s instructions and encouragement into use and put large-scale drug drug embargo into effect on some of their most traveled interstate highways. These pipeline-based tactics of both police departments had drawn many lawsuits which challenged both the legality of the practice on the Fourth Amendment and the racial discrimination interlaced with such vehicle stops. Interdiction and enforcement had an unmistakably racial cast which had a broadly diversified collision on African Americans (the State vs. Pedro Soto's case put these matters into focus).

Having used a study protocol designed by Dr. John Lamberth of Temple University, they were able to figure out whether or not the state police were targeting black drivers. “Hard numbers based on in-person observation on the New Jersey Turnpike proved that the race of the drivers played the dominant role in determining which drivers police pulled over and which vehicles and people were searched by obtaining so-called voluntary consent.” Lamberth had shown that while ALL drivers COULD BE stopped, African Americans were the main target when it came to being stopped. They were stopped at a vastly higher rate than one would expect given the percentage of African American drivers on the turnpike. With blacks only 13.5% of those on the road, they made up an approximate 35% of those stopped by police; based on the standard deviation, 19.45 was the number for African Americans. Statisticians calculate standard deviations to “determine whether the difference between two numbers is real (statistically significant) or the result of pure chance; generally, the difference between two numbers is considered statistically significant at about two standard deviations."

The Backstory on the New Waves of Racial Profiling

There is (and was) no reason to believe that using profiling based on part of racial, ethnic, or even religious appearance would do any better job of helping police find the so-called “bad actors.” Weeks after the September 11 attacks, an internal government memo surfaced, written by senior US intelligence officials, urging those on the front lines to avoid at all costs using profiling in tracking of possible terrorist suspects. This was put into action in the hopes of avoiding the mistake of using ethnic or religious appearance as a proxy for dangerousness. One of the officials had told the Globe: “believing that you can achieve safety by looking at characteristics instead of behavior is silly; if your goal is to prevent attacks then you want your eyes and ears looking for pre-attack behaviors, not characteristics.” There are other reasons to see the danger in profiling as an anti-terrorist tool, even if a minority of the public had accepted it. A few of these reasons would highlight the issues on:: (1) allowing or even encouraging front-line antiterror officers to use profiling would make the security system easier to defeat, (2) using racial or ethnic appearance - even as just one factor in addition to others - would produce great numbers of false positives, all of which security personnel must sort through and investigate, and would drain significant amounts of resources away from the real threats, and (3) investigating the many false positives, based on Middle Eastern or Muslim appearance, could not help but estrange these populations within the United States.

The Third Wave

The Third Wave arrived in the late 2000s with new political interest in suppressing illegal immigration to the United States. In 1996, Congress had passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and part of this law, Section 287(g), “offered state and local police forces the opportunity to agree (voluntarily) to become involved in immigration enforcement through agreements with the federal government; the local department, or a contingent of the department, would be effectively deputized to assist federal authorities with immigration enforcement, usually task forces and other kinds of specialized forces.” Local police were aware that their immigrant communities contained both documented and undocumented individuals which were often mixed together within families. This is one of the reasons as to why turning the police into adjunct immigration agents would cause people living in immigrant communities, whether documented or not, to fear the police. An outcome of this would be those people ceasing reporting crime and cooperating with the local officers. However, any efforts to recruit state and local police into immigration enforcement Section 287(g) largely failed with the fact that “even today, only 80 police departments out of roughly 18,000 in the United States operate under Section 287(g), with the vast majority operating only inside jails and focusing on those already arrested.”

With Section 287(g) attracting little law enforcement support, and with the efforts to update and repair the broken immigration system failing, a few state governments began to fill the “vacuum” with Arizona taking the lead. Arizona’s S.B. 1070 (the “show me your papers” law) was considered the most well-known and notorious state effort. “The law had multiple provisions, but the one most pertinent to this discussion required that any police officers conducting a detention of any kind - for example, a traffic stop or a stop and frisk - must inquire about the suspect’s immigration status any time the officer had any suspicion of an immigration issue.” Failure to carry this out by any law enforcement agency could subject the agency or an individual officer to a lawsuit. The state’s most congested county, Maricopa County located in Arizona, was home to former Sheriff Joe Arpaio who built his well-worked media brand which partially cracked down on Latino immigrants. Within time, in federal court he was found to be responsible for unconstitutional racial profiling and was held in criminal contempt for disobeying the court’s orders to stop the practice. “All in all, the use of profiling against undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America has not let up in the years since; with the advent of the Trump administration’s dramatic change in immigration policies and actions at the border with Mexico, this third wave of profiling, in immigration, remains very much with us.”

Where Are We Now?

“No one could doubt that racial profiling - the targeting of African Americans and Latinos by police, using their racial of ethnic appearance as one actor among others in deciding who police should stop, question, search, or frisk - was real.” Even though this did not occur in every police department and was not a maneuver used by every police officer, it did occur in some police agencies - such as the New Jersey and Maryland state police, the New York Police Department, and the US Customs Service, and so on - and the evidence was beyond questioning in 2002. “In every police agency in which measurement had occurred, the use of race-based searches and stops rendered police efforts less effective than policing that did not reference race.” Racial profiling not only had a negative impact on law enforcement, but it damaged the important connections and trust police needed to have with the communities they served. As many years passed, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a majority of the states had passed laws authorizing a collection of racial profiling on traffic stops and searches. “Most of these laws stayed in effect for just two or three years; they were temporary, a way to conduct something like pilot studies of racial profiling; but, a few of these laws did not sunset, they remained effective and required ongoing data collection and even reporting by state agencies.” Baumgartner et al. find that the targeting of people of color is most definitely real and that this racial targeting comes with a more belligerent style of profiling. “They sustain the early findings on hit rates, concluding that the data show racially targeted policing is highly inefficient and rarely uncovers contraband or solves cases and it tears at the all-important fabric of trust that the police and the public depend upon for cooperation with each other.”

It is evident that racial profiling is still intact today, and has caused many issues between American citizens and law enforcement officers. Multiple killings have occurred in large part due to racial profiling. Many officers assume right away that a victim is a “criminal” because of their appearance. There can be an end to this once officers start taking their moral training seriously instead of taking advantage of the badge they wear.


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