When you become a police officer, you'll be profiling
people, circumstances and geography all the time.
When you take the physical description of a suspect
from a victim, you'll be profiling that suspect. If you
do a good job at getting a complete and usable
description, you'll be able to profile that suspect
against suspects in other similar crimes occurring
within a geographical area.
You might ask, "If it's that simple, what's all the
screaming about profiling?" First, profiling does get
more complicated, and I've provided an excellent
Again...it's all about politics. If you ask ten people
today to describe profiling in the context of police,
the first word out of nine of those persons' mouths
will be, "Racial."
Profiling has become an almost exclusively black and
white issue. I say that in the literal sense, because,
to a lot of people, it's all about race and nothing
else. During my 20 years as a patrol officer, I never
had to worry about being accused of racial
profiling, because all the neighborhoods I patrolled
were exclusively African American.
The term, racial profiling, implies that race is the
only thing being considered when you decide to
take some kind of action. In that context, I would
contend that racial profiling certainly does exist...at
least initially. When ever I observed white people in
my areas of patrol doing anything other than
driving through on a main traffic artery, they
certainly attracted my attention. Of course,
following the initial observation, other circumstances
would come into play such as time of day, particular
location, the person's age, sex, and activity.
Let's look at a couple of examples:
1st Example: You're patrolling your post/beat
when you turn a corner, and you see a car parked
at the curb with two occupants...driver and
passenger. The car is parked legally, and the only
thing that attracts your attention is the race of the
occupants...both are young white men. Here are
the circumstances. It's 10 o'clock PM on a
weeknight; the location is in a high drug distribution
area as evidenced by the number of drug arrests
and acts of violence associated with the drug trade.
The neighborhood is all black, and, to your
knowledge, there's not a white residence within
twenty blocks in any direction.
What would you do, if anything? Well, let's look a
little bit closer. You also notice a decal on the back
window of the well kept late model car. It's a decal
for a prestigious university in your city. This tells
you that the two men may be students from that
university. As you continue your observation, you
notice the two men are frequently turning their
heads toward an alley entrance just behind them.
You're soon convinced that the two men are waiting
for someone, so you decide to continue your
After just a few minutes, you see a white male
emerge from the alley and walk toward the car. The
passenger gets out of the two door car and pulls
the back of the front passenger seat forward to
allow the third man to get into the back seat.
However, before the third man enters the car, the
two pause for conversation. Both men are looking
downward as they talk. It's clear to you that the
third man is holding something in his hand that's
he's showing to the front seat passenger.
It gets better. As the two men enter the car after
their brief conversation, you observe a black male
emerge from the same alley. The black male turns
in your direction. He only takes a few steps when
he spots you and makes an abrupt about face. He
walks back to the alley where he takes off like a
sprinter out of the starting blocks down the alley.
You recognize the black male as a previously
arrested drug dealer from the area.
Of course, the three white guys are totally oblivious
to what's going on around them as the three, now
inside the car, pull away from the curb. At this
point, you're assuming the three white men
probably are college students as evidenced by their
stupid behavior and their inattention to their
surroundings. Oops, that statement could cause
an accusation of educational profiling. Anyway, it's
time to put the screws to these guys.
By the time they reach the first intersection, you're
sitting right behind them at the red light. You could
turn on your emergency lights right there and pull
them over, but let's observe a bit more. The light
changes, and you follow behind them. You notice
the driver looking in his rear view mirror followed by
the back seat passenger looking back directly at
you. You can see the two in front turn there heads
to the side and they're talking. They're obviously
telling the guy in the back seat to stop looking at
you as he snaps his head forward.
|The History of Criminal Profiling
A Definition of Proactive Profiling
"To make judgments about another, relative to
possible criminal activity, based on a number of
overt and subtle factors which may or may not
include things such as a person's race, manner
of dress and grooming, behavioral
characteristics, when and where the observation
is made, the circumstances under which the
observation is made, and relative to information
the officer may already possess." (Fredrickson &
Siljander 2002: 15)
Let's add some circumstances. This white, affluent
residential neighborhood has been experiencing a
rash of stolen autos over a two week period. While
there's no description of a suspect(s), all five of the
previous stolen cars were recovered after they'd
been abandoned in an all black residential
neighborhood. All of the cars were the same make
and model, and all had the ignitions popped.
This time, you observe two black males sitting in
the car. Only, this time, they're sitting in a car of
the same make and model of those recently stolen.
You're also aware of where the stolen autos were
recovered. You'd be negligent not to investigate
further. A couple of different things could happen.
You could quickly learn that the men are not in the
business of stealing cars, or you could find yourself
standing in the street with the smell of burnt rubber
in your nostrils.
Here's the sad thing about the racial profiling
enthusiasts. They couldn't care less about how
much probable cause you may have when you
investigate a black person outside a predominantly
black neighborhood. In the example I just
described, you could easily be accused of racial
profiling...even if these men turned out to be the
Probable cause or reasonable suspicion...that's
what it's all about. There will be plenty of times
when your attention will be drawn to a person due
to that person's race coupled with other
circumstances that may, or may not, be suspicious.
The single most important thing for you to
remember is that race, and race alone, is never
enough to support probable cause or reasonable
I used the example of the white men buying drugs,
because it's something you may well see more than
a few times if you end up working in an all black
neighborhood that's rife with drugs. As soon as
you spotted them under the prevailing
circumstances, you knew what they were up to.
But...you made the proper observations to
support, with probable cause, what you happened
to already know.
Here's the irony. If you'd immediately accosted the
two white men simply on the mere basis of race and
location, racial profiling would be a good description
of your action. The same goes for the two black
men as to merely race and location. The only
difference is that the former doesn't count as racial
profiling and the latter does.
They're doing their best at staying cool, but this
won't last long. The inevitable turn is coming up,
and when you turn with them, you'll see the panic
set in. They turn...you turn...and panic they do.
These guys are jumping all over the place. The guy
in the back seat can't resist looking back at you,
and the expression on his face is pure terror.
It's time to begin their worst nightmare as you
activate your emergency lights. The end to this
story comes moments later when your flashlight
hits a single gel cap of suspected cocaine that the
back seat passenger failed to get stuffed behind the
back seat. A subsequent search will reveal the
other five he purchased from the drug dealer.
Okay...was this racial profiling? Race was the single
factor that initiated your observations. Had that car
been occupied by two black males, that observation
alone would not have caused you to make any
further observations. You would have continued on
2d Example: What if the same car, this time
occupied by two black males, was setting, at the
same hour, in an all white, affluent residential
neighborhood? In the first place, there are few
exclusively all white neighborhoods, so the mere
presence of the two black males would not be
unusual. The former described circumstances are
not present. The neighborhood is not crime ridden,
and any local drug dealing is not going to be done
out of allies.
What about the university decal. In the first
example, the decal only made you suspect that the
white men, who were obviously there to buy drugs,
happened to be college students. This time, the
decal again implies that the black men may be
college students. You observe no circumstances
that would cause you to make any further
observations, and you continue on your way.
About thirty minutes later, you're directed to an
address to take a stolen auto report. You realize
that the address is on the same street where you
earlier observed the two black males. Upon
speaking with the complainant, you quickly
recognize the description of the stolen car...decal
and all. Hey...that's just how it goes.
"...it's all about politics. If you ask ten people
today to describe profiling in the context of
police, the first word out of nine of those
persons' mouths will be, 'Racial'."
~ Barry M. Baker
|Copyright © 2019 Barry M. Baker