Police Stops

Racial profiling within law enforcement has been one of the most hotly debated issues on both a social and political level within the past ten years. On a broad level racial profiling can be defined as the inclusion of race as a primary determinant in the characterization of a person considered likely to commit a particular type of crime. This practice was the status quo within law enforcement until the end of the 20th century, when a series of abuses by law enforcement reinforced the public view of the negative characteristics of racial profiling. The purpose of this essay is to analyze and understand the rhetoric behind racial profiling by law enforcement in general. The fact remains that this policy came into existence and still impacts current law enforcement practices is that it is effective. The goal of this analysis is to delineate fact from fiction and to carefully scrutinize the fundamental assumptions made by law enforcement in using race as a factor for assessing criminal activity and risk.

The facts surrounding racial profiling are startling and in many cases highly convincing for the use of race in judging criminal activity. African-Americans are four times as likely to be arrested for criminal activity that the white majority. Asians are the least likely of all the races to be arrested for criminal activity. Although African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans comprise only about 28% of the total population of America, they comprise over sixty percent of all convictions and prison inmates within the American penal system. These statistics seem to point out a broad reaching reason for why racial profiling is used on a general basis for the assessment of criminal activity. Statistics clearly show that minorities are much more likely to be arrested and convicted for criminal activity that the white majority and some specific minority groups.

Although on the surface level, such an approach would seem to be justified by statistics, many different advocates strongly fight the basic assumptions behind such statistics. Criminal advocates argue that the disproportionate number of convicted minorities are due to the fundamental concept of "racial profiling," and the law enforcement uses circular logic when they apply such standards to the general populace. Criminal advocates argue that racial profiling results in the general perception that certain races commit more crimes and this re-enforced stigma actively contributes to how law enforcement arrests and convicts criminals. Therefore, statistics presented in favor of racial profiling are in fact the same counter-intuitive statistics that criminal advocates use to justify their attack on racial profiling.

From this general understanding of the implicit argument of using race as a factor for understanding law enforcement activity, we have to conduct a deeper understanding of law enforcement mentality. The fact is that the law enforcement community has generally supported the use of suspect profiling throughout all levels of the law enforcement. Profiling, not only through race as a factor but also profiling through any characteristic is a time-tested and universal police tool. Thus, many argue the exclusion of race is illogical because it excludes a factor from the consideration of social safety. Profiling can be understood as using established characteristics to identify causal links. From a law-enforcement perspective, racial profiling is an extension of profiling in general and thus an invaluable tool for social investigation and the early identification of criminal activity. The key difference is understanding the concept of using race as a factor through discriminating between "racial profiling" and "racial discrimination." These two terms, which has become virtual synonyms within the past five years, are separate and distinct concepts. Racial profiling is the ongoing process of using racial statistics as a pre-determinate of criminal activity. In contrast, racial discrimination is the use of race as the dominant factor in creating causal links between criminal activity and racial identity. Although law enforcement officers can both racially profile as well as racially discriminate, these two terms are separate and distinct. Professor Malcolm O'Connell explains, "if racial profiling means anything specific at all, it means rational discrimination: racial discrimination with a non-racist rationale" (BANKS). In defining racial profiling, we develop a contextual understanding of what the majority of law enforcement attempts to do when approaching the delicate issue of race.

From the perspective of law enforcement, the practice of good law enforcement is the consistent use of profiling to pre-empt criminal activity. Bernard Parks, chief of the Lost Angeles Police Department explains, "should we play the percentages?...It's just common sense" (HARRISON). Parks is one of the most respected police chiefs within the country, he is also an African-American. In his understanding of racial profiling, he makes the argument that racial profiling excludes racism, because law enforcement officers are using rational factors of consideration when stopping individuals. Race is one factor, of many other factors that affects whether or not an individual is stopped for questioning. Law enforcement sees race as not the causal factor in criminal activity, but rather a possible link that could be used as a criteria to determine suspicious activity. Just as in finding an individual in a certain place, or time of day warrants police intervention racial profiling inclusively places race as also another commonality within the framework of pre-empting criminal activity.

The problem that many experts note within the conflict of racial profiling is the alarming accuracy of such indicators. Unfortunately, some negative stereotypes can be correct. Criminal activity, especially within certain localities and region, are strongly related to ethnicity. This is especially evident in Chicago, where the prevalence of gang activity makes race a central issue in the understanding of law enforcement racial profiling. The problem with racial profiling, as perceived by its attackers, is the cases when such distinctions are wrong. The largest group of Americans who are angered by racial profiling are law-abiding African-American citizens, who feel wrongfully targeted by law enforcement based on their race. The failure of racial profiling in such cases, is used as evidence that racial profiling in general should be thrown out of the decision making calculus. However, this is an inherently flawed logical conclusion, the greater emphasis needs to be to remove racial discrimination from law enforcement attitudes.

To say that all race related deliberation with police detainment is positive or rational would also be extremely misleading. Police prejudice does exist in a majority of law enforcement departments. Such prejudice is much more dangerous than racial profiling, and in fact provides racial profiling with the negative stigma that it has today. When police officers racially discriminate, they use race as the only factor in determining criminal potential. When prejudice is deeply entrenched within law enforcement, the results are consistent race related crimes and abuses. The problem of race related police brutality, racial hate and overall negative stigma can all be attributed to discrimination rather than profiling. The problem of discrimination "is deeply entrenched within American identity creation, as a result, few law enforcement professionals do not harbor any racial tendencies in their actions" (WOOSTER). Preconceived prejudices are the most dangerous form of racial discrimination, only when this occurs does profiling turn into discrimination and abuse.

However, solving the problem of discrimination within law enforcement is an unenviable task. Discrimination exists at the deepest levels of human consciousness, and oftentimes only manifests itself subconsciously. Few if any officers are truly willing to confess to preconceived prejudices simply because of the negative stigma associated with such a claim. The problem has become exacerbated by the wave of intolerance towards expressing and open discussion of racial tendencies within crime. New Jersey state police superintendent Carl Williams for instance was fired for his remarks on racial crime. He explained in an interview that "certain crimes are associated with certain ethnic groups, and it is naive to think that race is not an issue in policing" (HARRIS). Without…