Race, Ethnicity, and Policing: New and Essential Readings

By Stephen K. Rice; Michael D. White Roberts | Go to book overview

Introduction

Robin S. Engel

I was a brand-new assistant professor at the Pennsylvania State University (PSU) in the fall of 1998. Sometime during those first few months, a high-ranking official from the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) whom I happened to meet casually asked me what I knew about racial profiling. My reply was honest: “Not much.” It was through this chance encounter with a PSP official that my work in racial profiling research began. I suspect that many researchers around the country had similar “chance” meetings and conversations that shaped their research agendas for years to come. Being both curious and eager as I started my career, I began to research what was known about racial profiling. My search did not take very long. I learned that a handful of studies from the mid-1990s were conducted, but there were flaws in the methodology and conclusions generated. I realized that the study of traffic stops was in its infancy and there was still much to learn. I also realized rather quickly that the rich information we had learned from years of studying police behavior somehow was not included in the new discourse of “racial profiling.” Even the use of the new term itself—racial profiling—implied that this was a new problem. Yet my years of study in graduate school of the body of research surrounding police behavior indicated otherwise.

I laid out a research plan for the PSP after receiving requests from police officials for information on racial profiling. After presenting this plan at a meeting with the PSP command staff, legal counsel, and political advisers, a PSP adviser took me aside and told me that if I could “figure this out,” there would be requests from police agencies around the country. He described the political and legal complexities of the issues and the dire need for police agencies to better understand and incorporate racial profiling research into their agencies. It was at that meeting that I realized the true enormity of the issues that lie before the research community. I can think of few other topics in criminal justice where researchers have had such an immediate and dramatic impact on practitioners—and ultimately on the treatment of citizens. And so, my colleagues and I went to work. Within just a few short years, racial profiling research exploded in police agencies around the country; and so did the debate among academics, researchers, practitioners, politicians, and citizens. This discourse spanned academic disciplines—law professors, practicing attorneys, criminologists, sociologists, statisticians, and psychologists all entered the mix. As the field expanded, different methodologies, statistical techniques, and conclusions were generated. The

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