Racial profiling occurs when law enforcement officials target individuals because of their race rather than because their behavior suggests they have broken or will break the law. Racial profiling can and does occur in a variety of different ways. Some forms of racial profiling most commonly discussed in the United States today include the practice of stopping African American drivers, singling out Latino/as for immigration checks and searching Arab Americans in airports. It can become a part of all types of decisions law enforcement officials must make, from deciding who to stop, who to arrest, on whom to use restraints and on whom to use lethal force.
Racial profiling is problematic for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is a direct contradiction of ideals of equality under the law and is simply unfair to those who are targeted because of their race. Many people have discussed their traumatic experiences with racial profiling and the degradation and humiliation they feel as a result of being racially profiled.
Racial profiling leads to communities of color distrusting and resenting law enforcement. In part because of racial profiling, communities of color often feel threatened and targeted by law enforcement officials. This makes it far more difficult for law enforcement officials to effectively enforce the law in communities of color as citizens do not trust them and so are less likely to fully cooperate. It can and frequently has bred resentment so strong that violence and rioting has resulted.
Racial profiling also means that people of color are more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system. For example, imagine that five out of every hundred college students, regardless of race, walk around with a small amount of marijuana in their pocket. However, the police only stop and search the pockets of students of color. Many of the students of color who are stopped have no marijuana in their pockets and are allowed to continue on walking, though they likely feel upset, angry, intimidated, humiliated or any number of other sensations. But one or two of the students of color stopped do have marijuana in their pocket, so they are arrested, brought up on charges, pay a fine or serve a small amount of jail time and have a criminal record. However, none of the white students with marijuana in their pockets are brought up on charges because the police do not stop them. This simplified example helps show how racial profiling leads to higher incarceration rates among people of color.
The New York City Police Department has long used a policing tool known as “stop and frisk” or “stop-question-and-frisk”. “Stop and frisk” refers to an officer stopping an individual on the street. Legally, an officer is only supposed to stop an individual if he or she has a “reasonable suspicion” that a crime has occurred or will occur. A “frisk”, which is a search of an individual’s person, is only supposed to be performed when the officer reasonably believes that the individual stopped poses a threat to an officer or bystanders. While this technique is used by law enforcement officials across the country, its widespread and systematic use by the NYPD, and the enormous racial disparity of those targeted for “stop and frisk” in New York, has led to frequent criticism of the NYPD’s use of this practice.
According to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYSLU), in 2011 685,724 New Yorkers were stopped by the police. Of those 88 percent were totally innocent of any wrongdoing. Over half (53%) of those stopped were African-American and 34 percent were Latino/a. Only nine percent of all of those stopped by the NYPD in 2011 were white. Not only were African-Americans and Latino/as far more likely to be stopped, they were also treated differently when stopped. In 2006, 45 percent of African-Americans and Latino/as who were stopped were also frisked, while only 29% of whites who were stopped were frisked. In 2006 after stopping an individual, police officers used force, such as handcuffing, frisking, drawing a weapon or restraining an individual, 50% more often on African Americans than on whites.
Stop-and-frisk was an outgrowth of a policing strategy known as “Broken Windows”. The idea behind “Broken Windows” was that in order to decrease high crime rates the police department should focus on small signs of disorder like broken windows. By fixing broken windows, cleaning graffiti and preventing minor crimes, police departments believed they could make abiding by the law a social norm in communities that experienced high rates of crime, and in that way lower the crime rates. The NYPD has frequently argued that it utilizes stop-and-frisk in communities with high levels of disorder in an effort to stem social disorder in the area to decrease crime rates. However, in an empirical study of the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk, Professors Fagan and Davies “f[ound] little evidence to support the claims that police targeted places and signs of physical disorder, and show instead that stops of citizens were more often concentrated in minority neighborhoods characterized by poverty and social disadvantage.” They concluded that the stop-and-frisk use undermined the ideals of community building and cooperation that were supposed to be core aspects of the Broken Windows theory.
Prior to September 11th, Arab Americans experienced racial profiling, particularly while flying. Many accused airline security officials of targeting Arab individuals for invasive screening and questioning based on nothing more than their race, nationality and/or religion. However, after September 11th, the practice of profiling Arab Americans grew enormously. Racial profiling of Arab Americans, including stopping, interrogating and detaining Arab Americans, has become an officially sanctioned practice of the United States government.
Immediately after September 11th, the Department of Justice rounded up thousands of Arab, Muslim and South Asian men. These men were rounded up based on supposed “tips,” but the tips were rife with racial bias and none of the men detained were publically charged with terrorism.
A month after September 11th, the Attorney General instructed federal law enforcement officials to interview approximately 5,000 young men who entered the country legally, but who had come from countries with links to terrorism. This list was based on nothing other than nationality, and the government had no reason to believe that these individuals were involved in terrorist activities. In March of 2002, another round of interviews was conducted of 3,000 more men, this time with local law enforcement assistance.
In June of 2002, the Attorney General announced a mandatory registration program in which all male nationals older than 15 from 25 countries had to report to the government to register, be photographed, fingerprinted and questioned, or face possible deportation and criminal sanctions. All of the 25 countries on the list were Arab and Muslim except North Korea. When men came in to register, they were sometimes detained for various reasons, including minor immigration law violations that would not normally lead to detention, and many were deported.
Frequently when these men were detained, whether after registration or in the initial round-ups that occurred after September 11th, family members were given little or no information about where their family members were and when they might return. An eighteen-year-old named Navila Ali recounted to Amnesty International the difficulties her family faced after her father was detained when he registered as he was the family breadwinner for her, her mother and her two younger siblings. She also explained how alienating the experience is. She had moved to the United States as a young child, and considered herself an American, but stated, “After September 11th…after my dad was detained, I was afraid to walk on the streets. I felt…am I not…American…like the other people around me? Growing up here, America is…my country. I like the culture here. I believe this is my culture…I like my freedom here….Now everything is kind of different.”