Racial profiling is more than a black & white issue
Racial profiling may seem to have lost some of its urgency as a law enforcement issue in the aftermath of Sept. 11, but the problem had by no means disappeared. In fact, it took on new life and new dimensions after the terrorist attacks as law enforcement struggled to maintain non-biased policing protocols in the face of public demand for greater scrutiny of Arab-Americans.
Well before Sept. 11, in what seemed like a different lifetime, racial profiling was the subject of intense, ongoing debate among lawmakers, researchers and policy makers, who sought ways to determine whether it was being practiced and, if so, how to eliminate it.
In July, the Police Executive Research Forum issued a report which cautioned police departments from relying solely on data collection as a response to the issue. The study, “Racially Biased Policing: A Principled Response,” offered 50 recommendations in six key areas including accountability and supervision, data collection, education and training, minority-community outreach and establishment of policy.
“PERF project staff determined that there are not as yet satisfactory ‘best practices’ in the realm of data interpretation and analysis…,” said the study. Among its suggestions, it urged police executives to work with citizen leaders in deciding whether resources spent on data collection could be allocated for other initiatives that would combat biased policing.
Data collection, said the study, is a low-level indicator, not proof of wrongdoing on the part of police agencies. Such statistics could also be used against departments by defense attorneys, said Lorie Fridell, the report’s primary author.
One month prior to the study’s release, federal legislation was proposed that would mandate data collection and impose sanctions on police departments that failed to act on the results. The Clinton-Conyers bill infuriated law enforcement by stating that prima facie evidence of profiling would be established by proof that routine investigatory activities showed a disparate effect on the minority population.
“If one loves this business, one can’t help but be depressed when you read this bill,” said Arlington County, Va., Police Chief Edward Flynn, chairman of PERF’s legislative committee. The Clinton-Conyers bill, he said, “moves in an extremely harmful direction.”
During the year, jurisdictions in virtually every state initiated data-collection policies. The Denver Police Department began recording all traffic stops on June 1. Washington, D.C., Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said in May that he would order the collection of data on traffic stops, after an audit of internal e-mail uncovered hundreds of messages in which racist or offensive language was used.
Data collection may be increasingly popular, but research says it offers no proof of wrongdoing by police agencies.
As of Nov. 1, Los Angeles police were required to fill out a form on each pedestrian or motorist they stopped. Using a black or blue pen, or a No. 2 pencil, they had to answer roughly a dozen questions, including the “apparent descent” of the person. In the coming year, it was estimated, LAPD officers would fill out roughly 750,000 data slips.
In New York City, statistics on black victims and suspects that were never before made available were posted on the police department’s Web site in May. According to data from 1998 through 2000, blacks accounted for 40 percent of crime victims in 2000, 60 percent of the suspects identified by victims, and 49 percent of those stopped on the street by police. They also made up 55 percent of arrests.
Law enforcement agencies resisted pressure in the aftermath of Sept. 11 to begin profiling those of Middle-Eastern ethnicity. According to polls taken in the days following the attacks, 68 percent of those queried by The Los Angeles Times said they favored police “randomly stopping people who may fit the profile of suspected terrorists.” Another survey, by CNN/USA Today/Gallup, found that 49 percent favored special identification cards for “such people,” and 32 percent endorsed “special surveillance” for them.”
Around the nation, other incidents involving racial profiling or the perception of it included:
A survey by The Tulsa World in May which found more than one-third of people stopped in 11 Oklahoma counties that were heavily patrolled for drugs were black or Hispanic, although the populations there were overwhelmingly white. In Mayes County, where blacks account for just 1 percent of residents, 12 percent of those stopped by state troopers were African American. The newspaper studied more than 34,000 warning tickets issued between 1996 through 2000.
Members of Michigan’s Arab-American community are often detained at airports and at the Canadian border, according to a report released in May by the Michigan Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Muslim women, the report said, are often harassed, fired from work or denied interviews when they wear traditional clothes.
A report using data collected from law enforcement agencies throughout Rhode Island from Jan. 15 through the end of March found that blacks were twice as likely to be searched and released as whites during a routine traffic stop, and three times as likely as whites to be searched and arrested.
According to the third report by an independent monitor appointed under a 1999 consent decree between the Justice Department and the state of New Jersey, the percentage of blacks and Hispanics arrested on the New Jersey Turnpike was back up to 1997 and 1998 levels - the same rate as before state police officials admitted to racial profiling. The data came from 441 videotapes of traffic stops. Monitors found six “problematic” incidents involving the excessive questioning of subjects and unprofessional questioning.
In April, California Highway Patrol Commissioner D.O. “Spike” Helmick temporarily banned officers from conducting consent searches. The order was said to be unrelated to a pending lawsuit brought by the ACLU against the agency in 1999 or concerns over racial profiling. A review of CHP traffic stops, Helmick said, found that the number of consent searches was minuscule compared to the number of stops made by officers. However, with the public questioning the practice, they seemed unnecessary, he said.