Racial Profiling Research Paper Starter

Racial Profiling

Racial profiling is a contentious issue in US law enforcement policy. The practice of using race as a part of a profile when attempting to identify or curb criminal activity has been used in various ways, including pulling individuals over on highways and questioning airline passengers and individuals at border crossings. Racial profiling has been used to justify finding drug smugglers, terrorists, and undocumented immigrants. Many contend that racial profiling severely hampers civil rights, while others believe it is necessary police practice.

Keywords Broken Windows Theory; Case Probability; Class Probability; Community Policing; Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; Profiling; Terrorism; Undocumented Immigrants; War on Drugs

Racial Profiling


Racial profiling has become a contentious issue in law enforcement practices over the last twenty years. An increasing number of reported instances in which law enforcement personnel have been accused of targeting certain minority groups has cast a spotlight on racial profiling, as well as increased tensions and debate over the legitimacy of the practice for various reasons (Institute on Race and Justice, 2008).

Defining Racial Profiling

There is no single agreed upon definition of racial profiling. The definition across the literature ranges from including race, ethnicity, or nationality as a consideration when deciding to apply law enforcement procedures, to using race, ethnicity, or nationality as the only consideration when deciding to apply law enforcement procedures. A similar term is racially-biased policing, and the line between what communities find acceptable and unacceptable is influenced by a wide range of factors (Anderson & Callahan, 2001). The public perception of the acceptability of racial profiling varies under circumstances. For example, a poll conducted in 1999 said 81 percent of individuals reported that they disapproved of racial profiling when law enforcement officials pulled over motorists solely based on their race and ethnicity. On the other hand, another poll conducted after the September 11 terrorist attacks showed that the majority of those polled supported increasing security and investigation of individuals from Arab backgrounds on planes (Pampel, 2004).

The practice of racial profiling by law enforcement agencies was begun during the late 1970s, as police officers worked to capture drug traffickers. A profile is a collection of gathered facts that help law enforcement officers target individuals who are likely committing criminal acts. Law enforcement officers have long used profiling to help them gain understanding about the likely characteristics of the perpetrator of a crime, including but not limited to age, sex, race, and observed behaviors (Institute on Race and Justice, 2008). Police have used profiling to target the characteristics of certain individuals as more likely to commit certain types of crimes, often observed by police officers. For example, a poor individual who spends a large amount of time in affluent enclaves may be targeted as someone likely to commit a crime. While this type of profiling has often been seen as unfair and biased, law enforcement agencies consider it a necessary practice to intercept possible criminal activity before it occurs (Pampel, 2004).

Racial profiling was first termed during the war on drugs in the 1970s and 1980s, when police officers were accused of pulling over motorists based on race and then searching their vehicles for illegal substances. However, there are incidents of racial profiling in other situations and instances throughout American history. For example, during World War II, hundreds of thousands of Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans were interned in camps throughout the United States even though many were American citizens and had never had any negative interactions with law enforcement officers in the past (Anderson & Callahan, 2001). Even more currently, after the September 11 attacks in 2001, the War on Terrorism was announced and individuals across the country were arrested, questioned, or detained by federal law enforcers. Many advocacy groups have derided the government for what they believe is questioning or harassment based solely on an individual's race, ethnicity, or national origin (Anderson & Callahan, 2001).

Other instances of racial profiling include pulling over Hispanics near the Mexico border in an attempt to capture illegal immigrants en route to the United States or questioning or searching minorities in high-crime urban areas (Pampel, 2004). In April 2010, Arizona enacted SB 1070, which made it a misdemeanor crime for a a nonresident of the United States to be in Arizona without carrying required documents. The act also allowed officers to determine an individual’s immigration status during a lawful stop or arrest (Archibold, 2010). The act, which was written primarily to address Arizona’s influx of illegal immigrants, was the strictest and most controversial anti-illegal immigration legislation at the time and prompted debate worldwide regarding the potential for racial profiling. The Supreme Court upheld the requirement in 2012, and five other states (Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Utah, and South Carolina) adopted similar legislation (Billeaud & Berry, 2012).

The arguments that surround the issue of racial profiling are connected to the inherent racism found in our communities and the tensions between law enforcement officials and various communities of color. Statistics have shown that African-American individuals are much more likely to be arrested and imprisoned than white Americans. As of 2012, 60 percent of all imprisoned men were African American, and 1 in every 15 African American men was in prison versus 1 in every 106 white men. Additionally, 1 in every 3 black men can expect to go to prison as some point in their lives, and convicted blacks receive sentences that are 10 percent longer than their white counterparts. Blacks were also three times more likely than whites to be searched during traffic stops (Kerby, 2012). Other ethnic groups in the United States have also experienced negative effects from racial profiling.


While the term racial profiling has only recently come into use, law enforcement agencies have long used race, ethnicity, and national origin as grounds for police action in the United States. During the years of slavery, blacks were not allowed to leave their plantations without passes, and they could be questioned or detained by any white individual without any reason for suspicion. After slavery was outlawed, many states continued to control African Americans through curfews and the use of Jim Crow laws throughout the South (Pampel, 2004).

Throughout history, conflicts and tensions between police officers and communities of color have endured. Hispanics and Latinos have faced intense scrutiny from law enforcement officials under suspicion that they are illegal residents; Asian-Americans were discriminated against by police officers in the communities in which they lived when they began immigrating to the United States in large numbers in the 1800s. Those of Middle Eastern descent face profiling in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.


The Police Public Contact Survey

A report released by the United States Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) provided results from a 2002 survey in which contacts between police officers and close to 17 million drivers were analyzed. The results were significant for several reasons. First, although white drivers were more likely than both black and Hispanic drivers to be stopped by police for speeding, both blacks and Hispanics were more likely to receive a ticket. Among the young, males drivers to be stopped, blacks and Hispanics were more likely to be searched. These statistics are in spite of the fact that in 2002 a higher percentage of white drivers were licensed in the United States (76.2 percent) than black drivers (10.5 percent) and Hispanics (9.7 percent).

Many people equate the war on drugs as beginning the controversy regarding racial profiling. The war on drugs gained intensity in the 1980s, with the introduction of crack cocaine into mainstream America (Pampel, 2004). In 1985, as the war against drugs continued, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) began training police officers across the country in recognizing a profile of a drug courier, based on intelligence gathered in how drugs were transported and introduced to various drug markets. The intelligence garnered by the DEA gave birth to Operation Pipeline, the knowledge of the relationship between drug networks and drug markets, and how drugs were transported between each. Local and state police were trained to target individuals and vehicles that met certain characteristics, including but not limited to age and race characteristics of possible transporters. When the profiling lesson was distorted, officers began targeting black and Hispanic drivers, pulling over male drivers with these racial characteristics under the...

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