Should Police Practice Racial Profiling?
The 1998 shooting death of three young minority men by state troopers during a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike helped spark a national debate on the issue of so-called "racial profiling" by law enforcement officials. Critics of profiling charge that the practice is inherently racist, because law enforcement officials tend to stop and search African Americans and other minorities more often than whites. Critics also charge that aggressive stop-and-search tactics erode public confidence in law enforcement and violate the CIVIL RIGHTS of all citizens. In 1999, they led the charge for federal legislation to determine the extent to which racial profiling is practiced. Defenders of profiling concede that some law enforcement officials may stop and search blacks and other minorities at a disproportionately high rate. However, they ascribe this to overzealous police work and believe it can be addressed through training. Furthermore, they credit profiling, in part, with a significant decrease in America's crime rate and oppose efforts to collect data on stop-and-search tactics.
Critics of profiling acknowledge that law enforcement officials have broad discretion when it comes to stopping and searching citizens. On the highway, evidence of a traffic infraction alone is justification for stopping a motorist. Off the highway, a police officer must have a "reasonable suspicion" that a person is armed and presents a danger, and must be able to articulate why he or she felt that way. This "reasonable suspicion" standard evolved from a landmark 1968 Supreme Court decision, TERRY V. OHIO, 392, U.S. 1, 88 S. Ct. 1868, 20 L. Ed. 2d 889 (1968), and it is significantly lower than the "probable cause" standard that police must meet to make an arrest or to obtain a SEARCH WARRANT. Just how much lower has been the subject of much debate and considerable litigation. The courts have consistently held that simply being of a certain race or fitting a certain type or loitering in a high-crime area does not constitute sufficient grounds for frisking. Making a furtive gesture or having a bulge in your pocket, on the other hand, does.
The extent to which racial stereotyping is used in identifying "suspicious" individuals is a key point of contention in the debate over profiling. Critics of profiling point to statistics that indicate that African American and other minority drivers are stopped and searched at a disproportionately high rate in comparison with white motorists. In Maryland, for example, a study revealed that 70 percent of those stopped and searched on a stretch of I–95 were African American—despite the fact that they represented only 17 percent of drivers on the road. A demographic expert who examined the data described the odds of this disparity's occurring by chance as "less than one in one quintillion." A similar study conducted in New Jersey in 1994–95 showed that on the southern section of the New Jersey Turnpike cars with black occupants represented only 15 percent of those violating the speed limit, yet they accounted for 46 percent of the drivers pulled over.
Profiling's detractors renounce efforts to defend profiling on the grounds that tendency toward criminality, not race or ethnicity, is being profiled as reflecting a pattern of stereotyping by police. When police look for minorities, these critics say, it is minorities they will arrest. While acknowledging the role of aggressive policing in the recent drop in crime, they decry the deleterious effect of profiling on public confidence in law enforcement, particularly in minority communities. How many innocent citizens have to be inconvenienced, these critics ask, in order to keep the streets free of criminals?
The lack of national data on profiling has led critics of the practice to call for national legislation to study the problem. In 1999, both the House and the Senate introduced bills entitled the Traffic Stops Statistics Act of 1999 (H.R. 1443, S. 821, 106th Cong., 1st Sess.), which would have required the attorney general to conduct a study of stops for routine traffic violations by law enforcement officers. However, the bills died after committee deliberations.
Defenders of profiling are quick to deny or deemphasize its racial component. They condemn profiling solely on the basis of race, but defend profiling by looking for signs that a person might be a lawbreaker as good police work. If blacks are being stopped and searched at a disproportionately high rate as compared to whites, they charge, it is because they commit a disproportionately high number of crimes. Defenders of profiling point to statistics that show, for example, that while blacks comprise only about 13 percent of the population, they make up 35 percent of all drug arrests and 55 percent of all drug convictions.
Where there is unreasonable racial stereotyping, these defenders assert, the problem is easily solved by training and discipline. Police Academy graduates in New York City, for example, are drilled insistently on what does and does not constitute reasonable grounds for a frisk. Members of the city's elite Street Crimes Unit receive a copy of the department's training manual, "Street Encounters," which expressly stipulates that if an officer's reason for approaching someone "is a personal prejudice or bias, such as the person's race or hair length, the encounter is unlawful."
Furthermore, defenders of profiling argue that it has proven to be an effective tactic in the fight against crime. Profiling, they say, allows law enforcement officials to focus their attention on those thought most likely to commit crimes. If this sometimes results in law-abiding citizens being inconvenienced when police aggressively enforce the laws and investigate crimes, this should not cause those stopped and searched to believe that their rights were violated. As the nation's violent crime rate continues to plummet, profiling advocates ask, is it an acceptable time to change police practices that have contributed to this drop in crime?
Law enforcement groups have been almost universal in their opposition to legislation requiring a study of traffic stops, such as the the Traffic Stops Statistics Study Act. They claim that it would be costly and could lead to lawsuits against police. The bill, they say, would place an unfair burden on the police and lengthen traffic stops. In addition, collecting information on personal characteristics would likely be considered highly offensive by many individuals. If an officer is uncertain of someone's ethnic background, for example, the officer would often have to ask for this information and an uncomfortable situation could result.
In June 1999, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in a 5–2 decision that police in Massachusetts cannot order people out of their cars unless they pose a threat, which is a stricter standard than the U.S. Supreme Court handed down in its decision that police may order people out of their cars on routine traffic stops. The majority opinion cited concerns of RACIAL DISCRIMINATION by police in its ruling, taking note of allegations that police stop African Americans disproportionately.
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