Profiling. We all do it in one form or another. It’s a primordial skill we developed on our way to becoming Homo sapiens. It was an early mark of our growing intelligence that we could categorize things. Once we developed the skill, it was easier to find sources of food and quicker to identify friends and enemies. Of course, it wasn’t foolproof. Some of our ancestors no doubt learned that the hard way when they poisoned themselves with a wild berry or mushroom.
The truth is profiling is a handy skill, whether you are selecting fresh produce at the grocery story or a book to take along to the beach. There are characteristics we are attracted to or put off by. But it is important to remember that profiling is not scientific. It’s an intellectual shortcut in a big, complicated world. And it’s especially insidious when we start applying it to people. Not only is it ethically wrong, but when it’s law enforcement doing the profiling, it can lead to legal complications.
Racial profiling has a long and shameful tradition, especially in the South. Southern police — who were exclusively white until a few decades ago — have traditionally harassed and intimidated black citizens for reasons both political and personal. Until recently, it wasn’t even considered an issue. Indeed, it was part of the job description, as anyone who grew up in a small Southern town a half-century ago would understand.
Today, racial profiling is a national issue, especially in regions with large minority populations. The killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., seems to be a particularly tragic and malicious example of the practice. The courts will ultimately have to sort out what led a self-appointed neighborhood watchman to shoot the unarmed 17-year-old.
Advocates as diverse as presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and attorneys general John Ashcroft and Eric Holder have spoken out against racial profiling, yet it persists. The charge has recently been made against the North Charleston Police Department, among others. I have had black friends tell me that being watched and stopped by police while driving and even walking down the street is just part of being black.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, in 2011 the New York Police Department did a “stop-and-frisk” on 684,330 people. Of those, 87 percent were black and Hispanic individuals, although they comprise approximately 25 percent and 28 percent of New York City’s total population respectively. Of those stopped, nine out of 10 were not arrested nor did they receive summonses. Reports of traffic stops and searches show that people of color are no more likely, and very often less likely, to have drugs or weapons than whites, according to the ACLU.
Federal and state government agencies have documented the failure of relying on race as a proxy for criminal activity, while the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the world’s oldest and largest nonprofit membership organization of police executives, has condemned the practice.
Furthermore, racial profiling diverts police attention away from more effective, evidence-based law enforcement techniques, wasting police time and resources and causing distrust among targeted groups. People who fear the police are less likely to assist law enforcement in their communities or call police when they are the victims of crime.
Congress has finally taken action on this issue with the End Racial Profiling Act now under discussion. The act would define racial profiling and prohibit it on all law enforcement levels — local, state, and federal. It would create an enforcement mechanism to ensure that anti-profiling policies are being followed and victims of profiling are able to report complaints against police officers. Federal law enforcement agencies would be required to collect demographic data on routine investigatory activities, develop procedures to respond to racial profiling complaints, and develop policies to discipline officers who engage in the practice.
Two weeks ago, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights held a hearing titled “Ending Racial Profiling in America.” Charleston NAACP President Dot Scott was among a group of South Carolinians who traveled to Washington to meet with members of Congress on the issue.
In a contentious era, this is an issue that Democrats and Republicans have been able to come together on. They just need a little nudge to assure them it’s safe to act. This would be a good time to pick up the phone and remind your senator and congressman it’s time to end racial profiling.
“Racial profiling is not just another ‘tool in the toolbox’ of police,” Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, said last week. “And it should bother all of us, if we want to live in a community that values equal treatment and fairness.”
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