Seeking for Righteousness

The Personal Blog of Kaimi Wenger

Brendan Maher writes in by e-mail, with a typically thoughtful comment:

My thought regarding the NRA case was this: The issue of “profiling” generally does not necessarily have to be about race, or sex or gun ownership. In the context of police work, “profiling” means (or should mean) the use of one’s previous individual and/or collective experience (which, by definition, includes one’s objective factual observations combined with one’s subjective analysis of those facts) in order to make educated guesses about future events and to allocate scarce resources based on those educated guesses. In other words, “profiling” in general is a useful, common sense tool.

At the extreme, this means that if a police officer sees someone walk into a bank with a pullover stocking cap covering his face in the middle of summer, while a running car with a similarly dressed individual behind the wheel is parked nearby, the officer is unquestionably justified in guessing that a bank robbery might be imminent, and would be further justified in checking things out more closely. The officer has clearly “profiled” the suspect, but no one would fault his use of that profile in taking his next actions. By contrast, a police officer who sees a black man driving a newer model year car in a mostly white, suburban neighborhood is not, absent any additional facts, justified in pulling that car over solely because of the driver’s race. If memory serves, the first uproar about “racial profiling” occurred because New Jersey police were doing just that — stopping black drivers on the turnpike just because they were black. I think we can all agree that profiling based solely on race is, in the run of cases, unjustified and unjust.

The more difficult cases fall between these extremes. What role should time of day, location of activity, appearance (other than skin color) of suspect and other such factors play in determining whether purely “racial profiling” (unjustified) or simple “profiling” (a valid police technique) is taking place? Can a police department make a rational and justified decision to allocate its resources to “high crime” neighborhoods even if those neighborhoods are predominantly black (e.g. South Central L.A.)? Can an individual officer make a rational and justified decision to pay more attention to vehicles with “rock shocks”, flashy paint jobs, UV underlighting, curb feelers and blaring, bass heavy radio systems even if that decision results in the stopping, detaining and (perhaps) arrest of more young Hispanic men than middle-aged Asian women? Can an officer choose to pay particular attention to a group of young black men hanging out on a corner in a “rough” neighborhood wearing clothing and/or specific colors he knows to be gang related, when a group of similarly aged white kids hanging out in the local mall does not attract his attention at all? In all of these situations, the race of the person subject to police scrutiny is undoubtedly noted and considered, but I don’t necessarily think that “racial profiling” is occurring as long as there are other factors present which the police, based on their past experience, are also considering. And, for the record, I do not think that “disparate impact” should be considered in this calculus at all.

Of course, this brings us back to our original (and more difficult) issue regarding profiling in the context of avoiding further terror attacks. In the case of the young Arab-looking man removed from the plane, there do not appear to be any other factors than the man’s race (or national origin) involved, other than the fact that he was getting on a plane and planes were used on 9/11. If that is true, I think that his removal was probably a true case of “racial” profiling (albeit not by any government entity) and was probably unjustified. (As an aside, I also think that people are way too quick to sue about such things — as long as the airline eventually gets him where he’s going and throws in a free round trip ticket, I say he’s been “made whole.”) On the other hand, given what we know about the 9/11 hijackers and their supporters, I do not have any problem with state or federal law enforcement agencies paying particularly close attention to Muslim organizations that are known to have connections to terrorist states or that are known to have “extremists” within their ranks. To me, that’s not profiling, it’s just good police work and sensible allocation of resources.

My thought at the moment is that we certainly agree on a lot — for example, that pulling over blacks based on skin color alone (“driving while black”) is wrong.

As for profiling to fight terrorism, I’m not sure that it would be effective. In commonly committed crimes, profiling can have a statistical basis as a law-enforcement tool (it’s objectionable on other grounds, but not for ineffectiveness). Unlike those cases, in terrorism, we simply don’t have the kinds of statistics necessary for accurate profiling in terrorism, because (thankfully) the sample size seems too small for useful extrapolation.


October 24, 2002 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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