Racial profiling is the inclusion of racial or ethnic characteristics in determining whether a person is considered likely to commit a particular type of crime or an illegal act or to behave in a “predictable” manner. A similar concept to the former is Offender Profiling. Toward the end of the 20th century in the United States, the practice became controversial among the general public as the potential for abuse by law enforcement came to light.
Conversely, it is argued that including race as one of the several factors in suspect profiling is generally supported by the law enforcement community within the Western world. It is claimed that profiling based on any characteristic is a time-tested and universal police tool, and that excluding race as a factor is illogical.
Motor vehicle searches and racial profiling
Motor vehicle searches are a possible application of racial profiling. In the United States black drivers are much more likely to have their car stopped and searched than white drivers. One explanation for this observation is that police officers have a racist preference, making them more likely to search a car driven by a black motorist. An alternative explanation is that police officers target not race but certain characteristics that are only correlated with race. This is also related to the hypothesis that police officers have no racial preferences and only maximize the probability of a successful search. If black motorists are more likely to carry contraband or illegal drugs, racial profiling may lead to a higher probability of successful searches.
At least for the state of Maryland data suggests that the probability of a successful search is very similar across races. This suggests that police officers are not motivated by racial preferences but by the desire to maximize the probability of a successful search. In fact, data suggests that the probability of finding contraband in excess of a high threshold is higher for black motorists, implying a bias against white drivers.
- that race should never be considered for any reason in a police action (save the exceptions made below).
- that race should never be considered the primary or motivating factor for suspicion.
- that race should only be considered when it is used to describe a specific suspect in a specific crime and only when used in a manner like other physical descriptions (e.g., hair color, weight, distinguishing marks). This is often referred to as the “be on the lookout” (B.O.L.O.) exception.
- that even if race could be helpful, use of race may cause many more errors where the actual offender happened not to fit the race predicted by the model and law enforcement fails to capture the suspect.
In the United States, the government does not have the right to conduct racial profiling. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to be safe from unreasonable search and seizure without probable cause. Since the majority of people of all races are law-abiding citizens, merely being of a race which a police officer believes to be more likely to commit a crime than another is not probable cause. In addition, the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires that all citizens be treated equally under the law. It has been argued that this makes it unconstitutional for a representative of the government to make decisions based on race. This view has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Batson v. Kentucky and several other cases.
Some groups also argue[who?] that police who focus their limited attention on one racial group allow criminals from other racial groups to go free. Critics claim racial profiling prevailed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, as law enforcement initially focused time and resources on two men of Middle Eastern descent (though Timothy McVeigh was identified and arrested fewer than two days after the attack).
In Los Angeles in December 2001, a man of Middle Eastern descent named Assem Bayaa cleared all the security checks in the airport. He was an American citizen and he got on a plane to New York. He had barely gotten settled in his seat when he was told that he made the passengers uncomfortable by being on board the plane. Once Bayaa got off the plane, he wasn’t searched or questioned any further. The only consolation he was given was a boarding pass for the next flight to New York. The luggage he had checked wasn’t even taken off the plane he was originally on. He filed a lawsuit on the basis of discrimination against United Airlines, who filed a counter motion. The motion was dismissed on October 11, 2002. The district judge ruled that a pilot’s discretion “does not grant them a license to discriminate” (The Advocate, Santa Clara University School of Law Newsletter). While an example of prejudice and discrimination, this incident was an act by private individuals, and did not involve a government agency as decision makers. It can, however, be shown to illustrate the potential toward abuse of racial profiling.
Racial profiling involves police use of race as a factor in decisions to stop and interrogate people. More specifically, it can be defined as “the practice of constructing a set of characteristics or behaviors based on race and using that set of characteristics to decide whether an individual might be guilty of some crime and therefore worthy of investigation or arrest” (McGraw Hill Online Learning Center). In airports, racial profiling is sometimes used to pick who to search more carefully and extensively than everyone else. If a person’s physical features look like those specific to someone of Middle Eastern descent, then they’re generally more likely to be stopped and searched thoroughly than someone who has the physical features of a European person. It has also been pointed out that many Arabs and South Asians resemble South (and occasionally even North) Europeans. On the other hand, confusion with Latin Americans and Caribbean people with Arabs is very common at airports. The constitutional basis for racial profiling has been a point of considerable discussion.