Reducing the Problem of Racial Profiling

In a recent column I discussed a new Washington Post survey which underscored the breadth of police racial profiling—the stopping and searching of people of color based primarily on the fact that they are people of color—and, implicitly, why it's such a flashpoint of race relations today.


The poll, commissioned by the Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University, found that 52 percent of black men and 25 percent of black women said they had been stopped by police officers solely because they were black.


It also determined that 20 percent of Hispanic Americans and 11 percent of Asian Americans said they had experienced similar treatment (4 percent of whites also said they had experienced such treatment).


I said then that those astonishing percentages are powerful evidence that racial profiling is being "too easily tolerated," and that more needs to be done to eliminate it.


Well, in a more recent news report, the Post has found that, although the situation remains serious, positive steps are being taken.


The most dramatic example is what has happened at the U.S. Customs Service, the federal agency charged with preventing the smuggling of contraband at the nation's airport.


Throughout the last decade the criticism of Customs' practices of singling out black and Latino passengers arriving from abroad for intrusive body searches grew to a white-hot intensity. Several egregious incidents in which black women at different airports were subjected to humiliating strip searches produced a number of lawsuits against the agency.


Fortunately, the allegations also provoked Raymond W. Kelly, a former top New York City police official who was then the agency's commissioner to push through a comprehensive overall of passenger-surveillance practices.


The changes included having inspectors keep detailed records of passenger searches, which were delivered to Kelly each morning; requiring inspectors to gain a supervisor's approval before conducting a body search; and requiring Customs port directors to consult a lawyer before approving X-rays of a person or their detention.


The result: From 1998 to 2000 the agency sharply reduced—by 80 percent, from more than 40,000 to under 10,000 —the number of intrusive body searches it conducted.


But, contrary to the expectations of some Customs officials, the reduction in searches has substantially increased the agency's "yield" of drug and contraband seizures—from 4 percent of searches in 1998 to almost 18 percent thus far this year.


"There's no doubt about it. They're doing a better job," said Ed Fox, an attorney who represents 90 black women suing Customs for humiliating treatment in 1997 and 1998 at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. "They've stopped picking on the people who don't carry drugs."


These improvements are the result of discarding procedures that virtually automatically equated color and ethnicity with a "profile of suspicion" in favor of a disciplined approach to determining which individuals really deserve inspectors' suspicion—and then insuring that the individuals' rights are safeguarded even as they are detained.


As Professor David A. Harris, of the University of Toledo Law School discussed in last year's volume of the Urban League's policy journal, The State of Black America, this is what good policing is: The commitment to develop justifiable reasons to be suspicious of someone and good procedures for detaining and searching someone based on something other than bias masquerading as expertise.


That message is gaining wider currency. At least thirteen states have passed law requiring police departments to collect data on their officers' traffic stops; eight police agencies are under a federal court order or agreement with the federal Department of Justice to do so; and President Clinton had ordered relevant federal agencies to collect similar data.


The most encouraging development is that, according to researchers at Northeastern University's Center for Criminal Justice Policy Research, about 400 of the nation's 18,000 law enforcement agencies are voluntarily collecting traffic-stop data, and some have taken other steps to determine why officers' stops of black and Hispanic motorists are so disproportionate to the latter having committed any wrong.


As Annette Sandberg, the former head of the Washington State Patrol, who in 1999 ordered the agency to begin collecting data, said, these steps are necessary. "Given the racial tensions across America, you have to be responsive to the community. We have to have the data to prove we deal with the bad cops and stand behind the good ones. And most people can live with that."


Of course, the resistance among some police officials to acknowledging the wrong being done continues. That's why it's important to keep the issue of racial profiling at the top of the nation's domestic agenda.


Soon after taking office, President Bush declared that racial profiling "is wrong, and we must end it."


No one could say what needs to be done any better.

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