Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Law Enforcement / Profiling and Prejudice (Part 2)

Whether or not profiling is considered good or bad depends on how it is used.  Racial profiling has been defined by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional based on the ‘equal protection’ clause.  This means that law enforcement stopping someone for no other reason than their race is illegal – as it should be.
Regarding racial profiling some evidence has been developed based on statistics provided by police officers that it does exist, at least it would appear so to some.  Law enforcement personnel are required to note in their reports the race of the individual stopped or cited for traffic violations.  What does this mean?  Well, based on the percentage of a certain racial minority in a given jurisdiction, it appears that African Americans and Hispanics are stopped and/or cited more than Caucasians.  The percentage difference is not great, but is statistically significant.

What is never adequately explained in the research are the extenuating circumstances that led up to the traffic stop.  Did the police officer know prior to initiating the stop that the driver or passengers in a vehicle were minorities?  Are there certain cultural differences that are suspicious, but not necessarily criminal, that might trigger a police response?  Such as inordinately loud music on the car radio, strange modifications to vehicles like blacked out windows or graffiti, unusual driving patterns, drivers exchanging words or gestures with pedestrians, vehicle cruising slowly through a residential neighborhood at night and I could continue.

However, as they say ‘statistics can lie’ and often do when a particular group with a vested interest applies statistics.  But, of course, the elephant in the room that no one wishes to mention is that percentage-wise more crimes are committed by certain minority groups.

When I say minority groups, I mean this in the wider sense and I’m not necessarily saying people of color.  Young men and teenagers might be considered a minority group.  Caucasians within a certain ethnic group or with negative associations might be considered a minority.  Police know and understand these patterns and tend to act accordingly.

Behavioral profiling in criminal cases, although not new, is becoming a major trend in police agencies, including the FBI.  It is one more tool used to identify criminal suspects, particularly in the areas of ‘crime against person,’ such as sexual assault and murder.

Criminal profiling is as old as police work.  Many experienced police investigators use criminal profiling and call it intuition or instinct.  That is pretty much what the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit does except they have taken profiling to another level by using quantitative analysis, massive data and computers.  Does the BSU generally provide more accurate analysis or opinions than an experienced police investigator?  Maybe, but not always.  Much of what the BSU provides would be considered ‘common sense’ by a very experienced investigator.

There is nothing particularly mysterious about profiling.  We all do it every day as we pass people on the street or observe them in the check-out line.  It is a skill we all learn early on in life.  If you didn’t possess that skill, you would be a sorry individual indeed – bungling through life, having people continually take advantage of you, and would probably not survive to old age.  Do I exaggerate?  I don’t think so.  Do we sometimes make mistakes?  Yes.

True Nelson
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