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The Case Against Racial Profiling

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The Case Against Racial Profiling
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The subject of racial profiling never leaves the news. That's because racial profiling may factor into how authorities target those suspected of various crimes, including terrorism, illegal immigration or drug running. But should any member of a racial group be profiled by law enforcement just because statistics indicate that the group is more likely to commit certain crimes? Opponents of racial profiling say no, arguing not only that racial profiling is unfair but also ineffective in tackling crime. Although racial profiling garnered much support after 9-11, the case against racial profiling outlines how the practice routinely hasn't worked, proving to be a hindrance in legal investigations.

Defining Racial Profiling

Before delving into the argument against racial profiling, it's necessary to first identify just what the practice is. In a 2002 speech at Santa Clara University Law School, then California Chief Deputy Attorney General Peter Siggins defined racial profiling as a practice that "refers to government activity directed at a suspect or group of suspects because of their race, whether intentional or because of the disproportionate numbers of contacts based upon other pre-textual reasons." In other words, sometimes authorities decide to question or intercept a person based solely on race because they believe a particular group is more likely to commit any number of crimes. Other times, racial profiling may occur indirectly. Say certain goods are being smuggled into the United States. Each smuggler law enforcement finds has ties to a certain country. Thus, being an immigrant from that country is likely to be included in the profile authorities craft of what to look for when trying to spot the smugglers. But is just being from that country enough to give authorities reason to suspect someone of smuggling? Racial profiling opponents argue that such a reason is discriminatory and too broad in scope.

The Origins of Racial Profiling

Criminologists credit Howard Teten, former FBI chief of research, with popularizing "profiling," according to Time magazine. In the 1950s, Teten profiled by attempting to pinpoint a criminal's personality traits through evidence left at crime scenes, including how the perpetrator committed the crime. By the early 1980s, Teten's techniques had trickled down to local police departments. However, many of these law enforcement agencies lacked sufficient training in psychology to profile successfully. Moreover, while Teten profiled mostly in homicide investigations, local police departments were using profiling in mundane crimes such as robberies, Time reports.

Enter the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. Then, the Illinois state police began targeting drug runners in the Chicago area. Most of the first couriers the state police apprehended were young, Latino males who failed to give satisfactory answers when asked where they were headed, Time reports. So, the state police developed a profile of the young, Hispanic, confused male as drug runner. Before long, the Drug Enforcement Agency developed a strategy similar to the Illinois state police's, leading to the seizure of 989,643 kilograms of illegal narcotics by 1999. While this feat was undeniably impressive, it doesn't reveal how many innocent Latino men were stopped, searched and apprehended by police during the "war on drugs."

Room for Improvement

Amnesty International argues that the use of racial profiling to stop drug couriers on highways proved ineffective. The human rights organization cites a 1999 survey by the Department of Justice to make its point. The survey found that, while officers disproportionately focused on drivers of color, they found drugs on 17% of whites searched but on just 8% of blacks. A similar survey in New Jersey found that while, once again, drivers of color were searched more, state troopers found drugs on 25% of whites searched compared to on 13% of blacks and on 5% of Latinos searched. Amnesty International also references a study of the U.S. Customs Service's practices by Lamberth Consulting to make the case against racial profiling. The study found that, when Customs agents stopped using racial profiling to identify drug smugglers and focused on suspects' behavior, they raised their rate of productive searches by more than 300%, Amnesty reports.

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