Race, Ethnicity, and Policing: New and Essential Readings

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

Chapter 10

State of the Science in
Racial Profiling Research
Substantive and Methodological
Considerations

Meaghan Paulhamus, Robert J. Kane, and Alex R. Piquero

Within the academic conceptualization of racial profiling, there are myriad nuanced ambiguities, such as “hard profiling” (the use of only race or ethnicity in a decision to stop a citizen) and “soft profiling” (the use of race or ethnicity as one of several factors in the decision to stop a citizen).1 Ramirez and colleagues2 offered an integrated definition of racial profiling, operationalizing it as “the inappropriate use of race, ethnicity, or national origin rather than behavior or individualized suspicion to focus on an individual for additional investigation.” As with many conceptualizations of racial profiling, Ramirez and colleagues' definition highlights two vexing methodological dilemmas that remain unresolved. The first is the more obvious: how to properly standardize police-citizen contacts in ways that allow for the objective assessment of factors associated with any observed racial disparities. In Ramirez and colleagues' terms, this relates to how to infer the “inappropriate use of race” (commonly referred to as the “denominator problem”). The second dilemma is less mechanical and more conceptual: how to contextualize racial profiling in ways that distinguish it from other theoretical perspectives that also explain why police might use race as a proxy for criminal involvement—that is, as if racial profiling is not part of the broader enforcement paradigm of American policing.

The present chapter examines the methodological implications of studying racial profiling, focusing first on the concept of profiling to gain better insight into why police would be motivated a priori to associate race with crime. Next we focus on several specific methodological issues (e.g., the so-called “denominator” problem, as well as other limitations) to assess the state of the science in profiling research. We describe the roots of “racialized” policing in the urban United States, some of the legal constraints placed on police authority with respect to the use of race as an indicator of probable cause, and the public's expectations of the police function as it relates to crime control.

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