No issue in contemporary criminal justice arouses more passion than racial profiling, a term referring to the practice whereby law-enforcement, intelligence, or homeland-security personnel take racial (and ethnic) characteristics into account -- along with numerous other variables -- when assessing whether or not they ought to pursue, question, detain, or arrest a particular suspect.
Opponents of profiling generally claim that the practice is never justified, under any circumstances. They commonly cite traffic-stop statistics as compelling proof that police officers disproportionately target black drivers for all manner of violations on the road, most notably speeding. In the late 1990s, such charges led critics of the police to coin the phrase “Driving While Black,” implying that African American drivers were perceived as lawbreakers solely on the basis of their skin color.
Yet it is also true that certain physical characteristics of criminal suspects -- such as skin color -- may provide police with important visual cues that can help them assess the risks involved in a given situation. Criminal-justice statistics show, for instance, that the "average" African American is several times more likely than the "average" Caucasian to commit crimes involving violence, weaponry, or stolen property. They show too that the vast majority of America's felons are men under the age of 30. If young male suspects are consequently more likely than people from other demographic backgrounds to be stopped, questioned, or searched by the police, such practice does not indicate that law-enforcement officers harbor an animus toward males or young people, any more than their cognizance of race-specific crime rates is indicative of bigotry. Former Los Angeles police chief Bernard Parks, who is black, put it this way:
“It's not the fault of the police when they stop minority males or put them in jail. It's the fault of the minority males for committing the crime. In my mind it is not a great revelation that officers are looking for criminal activity, they're going to look at the kind of people who are listed on crime reports.”
Racial profiling -- i.e., the consideration of race as one of many factors that affect crime-fighting approaches -- does not pertain only to black suspects. Indeed, the very term “profiling” first drew public notice by way of the FBI's behavioral science unit, which developed the most famous of all criminal profiles -- that of serial killers as predominantly white, male loners.
Moreover, white drivers in certain black ghettos spark police suspicions simply because the officers know, from experience, that white drug-traffickers often deliver their shipments to dealers in those neighborhoods. As one former narcotics officer from the mostly-nonwhite 30th Precinct in Washington Heights, New York recounts:
“It was a busy place with loads of illegal drug activity - dealing on the street and in residential buildings outfitted and barricaded as drug spots. We made arrests, thousands of arrests, and here is one of the ways the white cops and Hispanic cops and black cops did it. We looked for white people. That's all you really had to do. Cruise Broadway or Amsterdam Avenue or Riverside Drive in an unmarked car, spot the white guy driving the vehicle with the Jersey plate slow and deliberate, watch him park and shuffle to the sale location, watch him walk back to the vehicle with the pep in his step shortly thereafter, and bingo. Most times you had a collar."