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Can race or ethnic background ever be a valid consideration when conducting law enforcement activity? Which court cases specifically pertain to this topic? Please identify them, describe their relevance to racial profiling, and explain the court ruling.
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The United States Department of Justice (and NOBLE) defines racial profiling as “any police-initiated action that relies on the race, ethnicity, or national origin, rather than the behavior of an individual or information that leads the police to a particular individual who has been identified as being, or having been, engaged in criminal activity.”
Racially biased policing is illegal. The authors use the term “racial profiling” throughout Chapter 13 instead of “racially biased policing” because it is a more commonly recognized term. Some would argue that “racially biased policing” is a better description of the phenomenon. Racially biased policing occurs when law enforcement officers inappropriately consider race or ethnicity in deciding with whom and how to intervene in an enforcement capacity (PERF Report, 2001).
During the 1990s, concerns about police use of racial profiling as a pretext to stop, question, search, and possibly arrest people, became a major focus of minority individuals and communities, as well as politicians and law enforcement. National survey results in the 1990s from both Blacks and Whites indicated that racial profiling was common in the United States. Survey respondents believed that police were routinely guilty of bias in their treatment of racial and ethnic minorities, and that such behavior had been going on for a long time.
Researchers explain that all people use prior events for information to make decisions. This involves a conscious and unconscious thought processes. An individual makes observations and selects data borne out of their past experiences and may add their own cultural and personal meanings or interpretations to it. He or she will typically draw conclusions based on their own beliefs and then take some form of action.
Likewise, officers use profiling to look for characteristics that indicate the probability of criminal acts, or factors that tend to correlate with dangerous or threatening behavior. For most law enforcement officers, these characteristics have been internalized based on experience and training. If an official suspect profile is used by an agency and the perpetrator is caught, the response is, “He or she fits the profile.” “Every person relies on profiling for a preliminary rating of their risks…” (Strauss, 2002).
In the absence of conclusive or specific details, profiling is the only way to narrow the amount of information from which to make decisions, including whether or not to stop a person for further investigation. A problem arises when profiling is not based on accurate data. When the meanings placed on observations are faulty or biased, the assumptions and conclusions may be incorrect. This can lead to inappropriate attitudes, behaviors, and actions (Strauss, 2002).
This leads to complaints by members of the community voicing their negative perceptions and lack of support for law enforcement officers. Members of minority groups are particularly alert to racial profiling because of its negative history. Some data shows that racial profiling continues, though much progress has been made. Contrary to this, some claim that racial profiling is a myth and that the majority of officers do not detain improperly. Others believe that citizens do not understand police procedures enough, or are overly sensitive and cannot judge.
Regardless of perception, the courts have ruled that “race or ethnic background may become a legitimate consideration when investigators have information on the subject of a particular suspect.” (U.S. v.Travis, 62 F. 3d 170, 1995). If for example, the officers know that a bank robber was White, the officers may limit their investigation to White subjects.
The Police Executive Research Forum has developed policies that also state that, “Officers will not consider race/ethnicity to establish reasonable suspicion or probable cause except when based on trustworthy, locally-relevant information that links a person or persons of a specific race/ethnicity to a particular unlawful incident(s).”