Racial and Ethnic Profiling: On the Highways? In the War on Terror?
At the midpoint of 2001, the nation seemed to have reached a consensus on racial profiling. Fully eighty percent of Americans—not just African Americans or Latinos, but all Americans—agreed that racial profiling was wrong and should no longer be used by police. This poll astonished long-term observers of the issue. Americans rarely come to an eighty percent consensus about anything, let alone on an issue involving race. Think of the razor-thin results of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.
Not surprisingly, public opinion following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 looked very different. Approximately sixty percent of all Americans, including African Americans and Latinos subjected to profiling in the past, now favored racial profiling—as long as it involved extra scrutiny for Arabs and Muslims in airports. Conventional wisdom after the attacks posited that, given that all nineteen of the September 11 hijackers were young Muslim men of Middle Eastern descent, our enforcement efforts should focus on the same type of people.
But this widely-accepted truth turns out to be wrong. If we use profiling now in our efforts to be safe from terrorists, we will not make our country safer. Rather, it will only serve to make our country less safe. To understand why, we need to look at what we had learned about racial profiling before the September 11 attacks.
A Definition, and the Argument in Favor of Profiling
Racial profiling involves not a description, but a prediction: the use of race or ethnic appearance to predict which person among hundreds or thousands of people driving on a highway, walking in a city, or moving through an airport concourse might be involved in an as-yet-unknown crime. Racial profiling occurs when law enforcement officers or investigators use race or ethnic appearance as one factor, among others, to decide who to stop, question, or search. It does not require that race or ethnic appearance be the sole factor; rather, it need only be one factor among others.
Proponents of racial profiling argue that certain racial or ethnic groups are more likely to be involved in crime than others; profiling is not about race or racism, they say, but about conducting the most efficiently-targeted crime-fighting operations. They argue that targeting by race or ethnicity is simply the unfortunate cost of effective crime-fighting.
The Assumption, and the Test: Hit Rates
Thus supporters of profiling assumed that using race or ethnic appearance as one factor for targeting potential criminals actually yielded better results. But as of the late 1990s, no one—no police department, no government agency, no academic researcher—had attempted to test whether this was actually true.
I began to search for a way to test this assumption. Working with other researchers, I eventually identified a solution: conducting studies of hit rates. “Hit rates” are the rates at which police “hit”—find an illegal gun, find drugs, or make an arrest. These studies compared the rates at which police made a hit when they stopped and searched people based (in part) on race or ethnic appearance to hits of whites, in which race or ethnic appearance was not used as a targeting factor. Using data to compare hit rates for racially-targeted blacks and Latinos, and hit rates for non-racially-targeted whites, would tell us a lot.
The results of hit rate studies shocked supporters of profiling. In every jurisdiction in which researchers calculated hit rates, the hit rates for targeted blacks and Latinos were not, in fact, higher than the hit rates for whites. The hit rates were not even the same as the hit rates for whites. Rather, the hit rates for targeted blacks and Latinos were actually lower than the hit rates for whites—and lower by a measurable and statistically significant amount.
How to explain this counterintuitive result? It turns out that finding those suspected of any unknown crime, especially drug or illegal weapons possession (the two offenses which are the targets of most profiling activity that police conduct) depends almost entirely on careful observation of suspicious behavior. Present behavior predicts later behavior better than anything else. Race or ethnic appearance do not predict behavior; in fact, paying attention to race and ethnicity confounds law enforcement by measurably distracting police from the careful observation of behavior.
What About Profiling for Detecting Potential Terrorists?
Proponents of racial profiling post 9/11 point to the terrorist threat originating in the Middle East among Arab nations, and spearheaded by a group—al-Qaida—that claims (to the consternation of other Muslims) an Islamic basis for its actions. Thus, many assume that profiling will effectively predict and help detect potential terrorists.
But given what we learned about racial profiling before September 11, this is the wrong approach—even a dangerous one.
First, finding as-yet-unknown terrorists by using a profile that includes Middle Eastern or Muslim appearance (among other factors) will have the same effect it has had in other areas: it will distract our security officials from the laser-like focus they must have on the observation of suspicious behavior. The Israeli aviation security agencies have long understood this, and have even devised a behavior profiling system that they have used in their airports for thirty years. Their track record cannot fail to impress: more than three decades in the terrorist crosshairs without a single successful hijacking or attack on an aircraft. If we go the route of using racial or ethnic appearance instead, we take our eyes off the ball. And our enemies have already shown how easily they can recruit people who do not appear to be Middle Eastern: recall, for example, Richard Reid, the British citizen with a bomb in his shoe.
Second, our resources are not infinite. All of the resources we devote to investigating persons who are “obviously” threats because of their Middle Eastern appearance or heritage are resources we cannot use to investigate others behaving suspiciously. At the very least, our resources are spent unwisely when we investigate lots of people who pose no threat, but who have the dark skin or accents or passports that denote Middle Eastern heritage.
And, perhaps most importantly, using a profile that includes Arab or Middle Eastern heritage threatens our most important strategic asset in our struggle against al-Qaida: intelligence. Simply put, intelligence is how we will win this fight. Without it, we will have a much more difficult time overcoming our enemies. We want to disrupt and avoid terrorist attacks, not just respond after the fact. So we must have information. And the best—maybe the only—source of information about possible threats in our Muslim and Middle Eastern communities is the people who live in these communities. They know the language and the culture. They know who’s new, who seems suspicious, and who might be a danger. We need those communities as our partners. And having them on our side yields real, tangible benefits. For example, the federal government claims the disruption of the terrorist cell in Lackawanna, New York, outside Buffalo, as its greatest victory against terrorists on our soil since 9/11. The only reason that the government was able to investigate the young men involved, all of whom had gone overseas for al-Qaida training, was that members of the Yemeni community in Lackawanna trusted law enforcement enough to come forward and volunteer the critical information.
If there had been no trust, there might have been no information passed to the authorities, and thus no case. If there had been no case, there might have been a deadly, even catastrophic attack. When people feel targeted as a group, they lose trust in law enforcement. Trust is replaced by fear, anger and resentment. And these emotions, ultimately, may inhibit, if not ultimately destroy, the critical flow of information and intelligence to law enforcement.