It became apparent that we have a serious problem in this country and that this problem could undermine attempts to build bridges between different cultural groups. It became an issue at the forefront of law enforcement management.
The Roots of Racial Profiling
Police officers used to be trained to view people of different cultural background as potential suspects for deportation. It went so far that in 1972 taxi drivers in California were ordered to report any suspected illegal aliens to the police (McDonald, 2003). Orders such as these led to the definition that being "American" meant having the same skin color and speaking English as a primary language. The civil rights movement empowered immigrants to voice their opinions based on their racial differences (McDonald, 2003). In 1983 police departments reversed its position and officially announced that they would no longer cooperate with the INS with the removal of the legal aliens (McDonald, 2003).
The change in position on immigrants is largely a part of a growing immigrant population. As immigrants begin to make up a larger portion of the population it becomes necessary to gain their trust and cooperation as much as that of natural citizens. This change in attitude towards racial profiling and immigrants has arisen out of necessity. Police must now place more emphasis on understanding the specific needs of various segments of the population. For instance, in Los Angeles Korean refugees did not understand that it was against the law for them to fish in a local lake without a license (McDonald, 2003). Immigrants from El Salvador did not think it was acceptable to use the restroom on a public sidewalk. Middle Eastern immigrants do not see a problem with marrying off their teenage daughters at an early age to men that are considered adults in this country (McDonald, 2003). Situations like these arise in immigrant populations on a more frequent basis.
Officers need to understand the reasoning for these actions and treat them with dignity and respect, rather than treating them as if they are criminals. These immigrants did not mean to break the law they simply did not understand the culture and laws in this country. These situations required education rather than punishment. Approaching the situation from the perspective of education rather than punishment helps to build trust among immigrant communities rather than mistrust.
The real difficulty for police officers is in trying to decide when race is a legitimate and valid reason to pursue certain individuals such as in the suspects in the bombings of the World Trade Towers. In this case cultural differences were at the heart of illegal activities. Officers must be culturally aware, but the public now sees their role in a much different light than they did in the past. Police departments have taken positive measures to try to curb unnecessary racial profiling through diversity training that includes knowledge of cultures other than their own. They have reversed their position on helping the INS in the removal of illegal aliens. As we become a more racially integrated society officers have responsibility to learn to eliminate have their own personal biases and to judge people on their actions alone.
Racial Profiling and the Muslim Community
On September 11, 2001 attitudes from the community and law enforcement about racial profiling began being questioned for different reasons. It was on this day that we learned about an enemy within. Ideas about race and ethnicity changed when America learned that 28 of the 28 suspects responsible for the attack on the World Trade Towers were middle eastern males. Americans insisted that airlines remove people of obvious middle eastern descent from airplanes (Mayer, 2001). It now seemed as if the American public itself was profiling people of middle eastern descent (Harris, 2002). A country that once welcomed immigrants from any nation with open arms now had turned hostile against an entire race because of the actions of a few. Law enforcement still condemned the practice of racial profiling, yet after the attacks of September 11, 2001 FBI agents detained and questioned hundreds of people on the basis of their race or religion alone (Holland, 2001).
A new fear based on racial bias had been born in America, one which seemed to contradict the very roots of the civil rights movement. It now seemed as if racial bias was tolerable under certain conditions. Movement across national borders has become easier in countries all around the globe. Societies that were once dominated by one ethnic group are quickly becoming a mix society of immigrants (McDonald, 2003). Racial tolerance has become the norm and immigrants are now seen in a different light than they were in the past. One of the traditional roles of law enforcement was to help the Federal immigration and naturalization service (INS) with enforcement of immigration laws. However, in 1996 a survey revealed that almost none of the 17,000 state and local law enforcement agencies in the United States were willing to assist with the enforcement of immigration laws (McDonald, 2003). This represents a dramatic shift in ideology.
The difference between racial profiling that followed September 11 is that police knew that the Muslims that committed the attack were working directly under the orders of Osama bin Laden. They were not looking for people of middle eastern descent in general, but were specifically on the trail of those that they knew may be connected with the terrorist group. Their search of middle eastern people was not racially based, but was based on specific knowledge that they had about the demographics and characteristics of the group that had promised to carry out more vicious attacks unless they were stopped. The purpose of the search was not to say that all middle eastern people were suspicious, but it was simply a screening process to try to find those that were connected to the act. In this case racial profiling meant efficiency in finding the correct persons (Harcourt, 2004).
This is different than stopping a black person driving through a white neighborhood with no specific reason for doing so. Racial profiling against Africans and Latino's began under similar auspices of a war on drugs. However, what makes this situation different is that the police had no specific information on individuals, they were acting on generalizations based on statistics. Searching for individuals who may be connected to certain groups is different than acting on general statistics. The police searching for middle easterners were not acting on general statistics but on specific information. This is the difference between what is typically referred to as racial profiling and what is considered good police work.
Is This Still Necessary, or Just an Excuse?
Race and ethnicity are poor predictors of individual behavior. There is a fine line between using race or skin color to describe a person accused of a crime, such as the 28 suspects in the September 11 bombings and using color to make a judgment about a person's potential actions in the future is an entirely different matter (Harris, 20002). Now we have to ask ourselves if singling out Muslims was effective. Did we catch any more terrorists by harassing hundreds of thousands of Muslims? We have to ask if it was effective then and how long it should continue. Is it still necessary, or does this now fall under the same category as "traditional" profiling of African-Americans? (Criminal Justice Reform Project, 2003).
Using racial profiling to stop and question citizens on the basis of skin color or ethnicity alone does little to eliminate or prevent future crimes (Reitzel and Piquero, 2006). It places police focus on those that are not more likely to commit a crime and takes it away from other potential citizens that may be at risk to commit a crime. In the events after September 11, 2001 suspected terrorists were not caught by community-wide sweeps of the Muslim community, but by targeted efforts on the activities of individuals. The practice of profiling has been proven ineffective (Dabney, et al., 2006) and damages community relations among ethnic groups. Cultural diversity training is an important part of controlling racial profiling.
Coderoni, G. (2002).The relationship between multicultural training for police and effective law enforcement - Perspective.
FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, the, http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2194/is_11_71" Nov, 2002: 1-3
Criminal Justice Reform Project. (2003). Wrong Then, Wrong Now: Racial Profiling Before and After September 11, 2001. Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, Criminal Justice Reform Project, February 27, 2003.
Dabney, D., Dugan, L., Topalli, V., and Hollinger, R. (2006). The Impact of Implicit Stereotyping on Offender Profiling. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 33 (5): 646-674.
Harcourt, B. (2004). Rethinking Racial Profiling: A Critique of the Economics, Civil Liberties, and Constitutional Literature, and of Criminal Profiling More Generally. 71 U. Chi. L. Rev. 1275. Fall, 2004.
Harris, D. (2002). Flying while Arab: lessons from the racial profiling controversy.