Individual civil liberties

Therein lies one of the most egregious aspects of racial profiling in that it becomes thought of as an accepted norm within the law enforcement community. There is something of a twisted logic to the idea that if a minority group commits a higher proportion of crimes in a certain area then it is acceptable to stop them on the street or in their vehicles simply because they fit that pre-determined "profile" and thus, it is legitimate to suspect them in any number of circumstances. Of course, such an attitude is an example of both racist thinking and the worst kind of infringement on individual civil liberties.

The Constitution's reasonableness requirement of the Fourth Amendment and Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment are at the core of the debate over racial profiling. What is and is not "reasonable" has been debated throughout the 20th century, especially the second half, in terms of what a "reasonable" person believes, understands, and acts upon in the process of taking action against another person. The usual supposition, that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, has been explicitly reversed in asset forfeiture cases.

The authorities are not required to prove that a crime, involving the goods in question, has been committed. Instead, they must merely have "probable cause" for the seizure; the burden of proof is on the defendant trying to recover his property. The well-known police cases in New York City of the torture of Abner Louima, the killing of Amadou Diallo and in Los Angeles the beating of Rodney King are incidents that demonstrate the terribly wrong consequences that can be the outcome of vicious actions taken against a person primarily because of race.

Regardless of the fact that these cases took place in America's largest cities and that they received as much media attention as they did does not suggest that other abuses do not occur in the smaller cities and towns of the rest of the nation. The debate on racial profiling is also fuelled greatly by incidents that could hypothetically have been prevented had it been practiced to the extreme. For example, some argue that an extreme form of racial profiling towards Arabs could in theory have made authorities aware of those involved in September 11th before it happened, thereby preventing it.

Those not wholly opposed to racial profiling would assert that merely a more thorough check of those who would be historically more likely to be involved with airline terrorism and/or hijacking of airplanes would have found some, if not all of the box cutters that the September 11th hijackers carried, and thereby preventing the hijacking of the planes. (Wikepedia pg 1) Last year, in reaction to high-profile cases of abuse, Congress passed legislation that changed the standard in federal civil asset forfeiture cases.

Rather than showing "probable cause" that property was connected to a crime, the feds must now demonstrate "by a preponderance of the evidence" that the property was used in or is the product of a crime, a significantly higher legal standard. The revised law also awards legal fees to defendants who successfully challenge property seizures and gives judges more latitude to return seized property. Exactly what effect the law will have on federal agents, or on state and local cops, is not yet clear.

It is worth noting that the Supreme Court has clarified its position regarding police searches and seizures that are objectively reasonable and that they do not necessarily go against the Fourth Amendment, even if the officer is motivated by genuinely subjective ideas regarding a certain person. An officer may be a racist or be convinced that all Vietnamese living in a certain neighborhood are dangerous and such opinions may be clear indications of the officer's personal biases.

However, if that standard of objectivity is met, the officer still has the ability and legal right to undertake a search, seizure, or arrest. Likewise, it does not mean that an officer or agency may not be accused of participating in violating a constitutional right if the person involved perceives it as such. Because society has come to understand that law enforcement officials are accountable to the people they are supposed to "serve and protect," individuals are more likely and more willing to criticize officers and take action against them when they believe they have been treated unfairly.

Kenney makes a very valid point when she writes: "To fail to address the issue of discrimination because we fear to take action against law enforcement officers who commit improper actions would set us back a century" (pp. 24). As a result of the increased public awareness of racial profiling and its attendant abuses, citizens' groups, activists, and state legislators have demanded or instituted requirements that data be collected that can prove or disprove that racial profiling is taking place within a particular agency.

They are determined that traffic stops, searches, arrests, and other police action be proportional to the racial mix of a community and not based on the preconceptions and racial biases of officers involved in any particular situation. The practice of data collection has also generated a great deal of criticism from equally vocal groups that point out that police officers are not census workers and that they may be fallible in their own assumptions regarding a person's ethnicity or background. Such assumptions have the potential to then lead to even greater problems in which people are wrongly identified and classified.

One reason for the data collection processes is to demonstrate that such profiling abuses do exist and that officers must be thoroughly trained in ways that assure that those practices are not perpetuated. Gene Callahan and William Anderson (2001) use the example of a case in which, in an attempt to stop marijuana planting and harvesting in a national forest in Mendocino, California, "… forest rangers were told to question all Hispanics whose cars were stopped, regardless of whether pot was actually found in their vehicles" (pp.

37). In fact, Callahan and Anderson note that a local newspaper was able to get hold of a memo that was circulated to the rangers that told them to "… develop probable cause for stop" (pp. 37) and even if there is no marijuana found in the vehicle containing Hispanic people, the rangers should still "FI" (field interrogate) the occupants (pp. 37). This would be an instance when it would be valuable to have the back-up data demonstrating that such events truly do take place and against which legal action could be initiated.

The statistics that have been gathered demonstrate the depth to which such problems have already been documented. Callahan and Anderson quote from a 1999 report published by the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a group that monitors abuses of the American legal system, and written by Chad Thevenot. Thevenot states that: 76 percent of the motorists stopped along a 50-mile stretch of I-95 by Maryland's Special Traffic Interdiction Force (STIF) were black; according to an Associated Press computer analysis of car searches from January through September 1995….

Blacks constitute 25 percent of Maryland's population, and 20 percent of Marylanders with driver's licenses. (pp. 37). Such figures are valid and incriminating evidence that demonstrate that racial profiling is a very real phenomenon that must be addressed by lawmakers and law enforcement agencies. According to Steve Cooper (2001) studies that have been conducted in San Diego, New Jersey and other places have conclusively demonstrated that the profiling does take place and that minority drivers are constantly stopped and have had their vehicles searched at a disproportionate rate (pp.55).

Cooper also explains that, unfortunately, the studies have not shown "how or why the police disproportionately stop minorities; they merely reaffirm what many people have claimed for years" (pp. 55). Therefore, the use of statistical analysis to address the relationship between ethnicity and stops or arrests can establish a foundational data base in which the actual issues contributing to its existence may be addressed and corrected.

Cooper does admit that there are problems in truly understanding the processes of profiling if all that is done is collect numbers and dates (pp. 55). The example that Cooper uses to illustrate such a point is if an officer stops a person for something such as an "improper lane change" or some other minor offense, sees drugs or the evidence of drugs in the car, and then arrests the driver, it is more than likely that the traffic violation will be dropped in lieu of prosecuting the drug charge (pp. 55).

In a case such as this, Cooper goes on to explain that data is not enough since: "Researchers will have a difficult time determining if this person was 'racially profiled' for purposes of their statistical analysis since no traffic citation was issued" (pp. 55). As with any other example of racism or prejudicial approaches to dealing with people, racial profiling has an impact on community policing. The widespread perception among people of color that they are unfairly targeted by the police because of their race has led to a lack of trust in the police.

This mistrust harms frequently the police, Hispanics and communities of color, by impeding effective police work. Minorities need effective policing. People of color and Hispanics are more likely than whites to be victims of crime. They need the protection offered by effective police work, and the police want to do their job effectively. Mistrust of the police frustrates this goal because it makes people less likely to cooperate with the police by reporting crimes and aiding police investigations. The investigation and eradication of racial profiling serves the common interests of police and communities of color.

The ultimate question in the profiling controversy is whether the disproportionate involvement of blacks and Hispanics with law enforcement reflects police racism or the consequences of disproportionate minority crime. Anti-profiling activists hope to make police racism an all but irrefutable presumption whenever enforcement statistics show high rates of minority stops and arrests. The style and orientation of community policing may serve as a model through which racial profiling can be minimized or, at the very least, applied as it should be in terms of being a policing tool rather than an offense.

Community policing is also a form of partnership between residents and officers that allows for the input of members of the community regarding the actions of the police. Instead of trying to operate in a setting through which racial profiling is the only means through which a police officer believes that he or she can identify a potential criminal, community policing serves as the means through which programs, agencies, and individuals may work together rather than in seclusion.

After all, the residents of a community best understand what is truly taking place in that community and are best able to assure that law enforcement officials and elected leaders understand the unique problems that they face. If we really wish to end the scourge of racial profiling, we must address its roots: drug laws that encourage police to consider members of broad groups as probable criminals. We must redirect law enforcement toward solving specific, known crimes using the particular evidence available to them about that crime.

It should be obvious that there's something nutty about a legal system that assumes suspects in murder, robbery, and rape cases are innocent until a trial proves otherwise, but assumes that a landscaper carrying some cash is guilty of drug trafficking. Through such efforts, the overall well-being of the community is enhanced which leads to a greater understanding and acceptance of the differences between people that share the same physical space.

Today, young men of color and Hispanics are targeted because the system needs to keep a potentially explosive section of the working and oppressed classes under control. After the post-World War II economic boom, the ruling class cracked down on Labor and gutted social spending in order to maintain their profits. The harshest consequences of this program are experienced by low-wage workers and unemployed youth, predominantly Latinos and African American. Their poverty starkly contrasts with the spectacle of opulence and the myths of social mobility and opportunity in the US.

Therefore, from the ruling class's perspective; these groups must be constantly undermined, divided, intimidated, attacked, imprisoned, discredited, and ultimately kept in check with naked force in the form of a lethal injection or a police bullet. Hispanics and people of color are thus made scapegoats for the problems created by the ruling class. Rape, gangs, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, muggings, child abuse, unemployment, all these are ascribed to their personal moral flaws, which contributes to the social perception of criminality, which fuels the police tactic of profiling.


  • Callahan, G; Anderson, W (2001, August) The roots of racial profiling, Reason, v33 i4, 37. Cooper, S (2001, July) A closer look at racial profiling, The Quill, v89 i6, 55.
  • Derbyshire, J (2001, February) In defense of racial profiling: Where is our common sense? National Review, v53 i3, NA.
  • Kenney, L (2002, January) Address racial profiling in a criminal context: N. J. lawmakers sent the wrong message by failing to make the practice a crime, New Jersey Law Journal, v167 i3, 23