Racial Profiling & Biased Policing: Definition & Impact

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  • 0:04 Disparate Police Practices
  • 1:53 Racial Profiling
  • 4:58 Biased-Based Policing
  • 6:30 Negative Impact
  • 7:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

Racial profiling and biased policing are significant issues in law enforcement today. This lesson defines racial profiling and biased policing and explains why these issues have a negative impact on law enforcement efforts.

Disparate Police Practices

When a Ferguson, Missouri, grand jury declined to indict a white police officer for the shooting death of a black teenager, thousands took to the streets in protest. Why did this event mean so much to so many? Whenever there's a possibility of racial discrimination in policing, it strikes a nerve throughout the country.

There's no doubt that differences in policing exist. Nearly all research on the topic shows that the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system consistently outpaces the percentage of these groups in the general population. In fact, one recent study showed that black men are nearly six times more likely to spend time in prison than white men. Blacks and Hispanics make up more than 50% of all prisoners, though they make up just 25% of the general population.

Many experts point to disparate police practices. This means the police treat people differently because of membership in a particular class, such as race, gender or ethnicity.

For example, let's say a white woman in her 40s runs a stop sign in front of a school. A police officer witnesses the event and decides not to pull the woman over. A white man in his 40s then runs the same stop sign in front of the same school. This time the police officer decides to pull the car over and issue a traffic ticket to the driver. That's an example of disparate treatment because the two drivers were handled differently based on gender.

Racial Profiling

The Ferguson case, however, wasn't just about disparate treatment. Remember that 'disparate' just means 'different.' It doesn't necessarily connote positive or negative treatment.

Instead, the Ferguson case involved accusations of racial profiling. Racial profiling takes disparate treatment one step further. It refers to police practices that disproportionately target racial minorities for investigation and enforcement. Racial profiling is a type of disparate treatment. Just notice that racial profiling always involves race and always involves negative treatment. Racial profiling always refers to negative treatment because it involves the unfair targeting or handling of racial minorities. However, note that officers can properly rely on race, ethnicity or other characteristics when those characteristics are part of the description of the suspect.

Many of the Ferguson protestors wondered this: Would the officer have shot the suspect if the suspect were a white man? Or, had the officer unfairly perceived the suspect to be a threat simply because the suspect was a black man? If the color of the suspect's skin played a role in the officer's policing decisions, then that's an example of racial profiling.

Officers have long been accused of racial profiling. One example is the practice of stop-and-frisk. Research shows stop-and-frisk is disproportionately used on minorities. In a stop-and-frisk, an officer temporarily detains a person for questioning and a pat down of outer clothing without concrete evidence of criminal activity. Instead, an officer can conduct a stop-and-frisk based on a reasonable suspicion that the person is involved in a crime or preparing to commit a crime. Notice that 'reasonable suspicion' is a low standard. It's more than a mere hunch but less than probable cause. Remember that probable cause is the standard of proof needed for a search or an arrest.

It's important to note that racial profiling affects all races. For instance, there are documented cases involving racial profiling against Native Americans and Asians. Even young white men have found themselves unfairly targeted by police for suspicion of crimes like drug possession and manufacturing.

Note, however, that the U.S. Justice Department officially banned the use of racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies. The only exception pertains to the identification of possible terrorism suspects in limited circumstances. These special circumstances are known as the National Security Exception and Border Integrity Exception.

Bias-Based Policing

That brings us to bias-based policing. Bias-based policing refers to police practices that intentionally use prejudiced judgments based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, religious beliefs or age. Generally speaking, bias-based policing includes racial profiling and also many other types of profiling.

For example, targeting Muslims as potential terrorists would normally be an example of bias-based policing. The FBI openly and legally uses stereotypes based on nationality in order to identify terrorism suspects.

Remember our police officer that didn't ticket the female driver? If he chose not to stop her simply because she was a woman, then that's bias-based policing. Or, let's say he routinely issues traffic tickets to teenagers but not to adult drivers. That's bias-based policing.

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