Collecting Statistics in Response to Racial Profiling Allegations. (Perspective)

By Kruger, Karen J. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Collecting Statistics in Response to Racial Profiling Allegations. (Perspective)


Kruger, Karen J., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


"This isn't a problem that can be quantified just in terms of statistics.... It's like the guy who is unemployed; the unemployment rate for him is 100 percent. For people who have been the victim of racial profiling, the statistic is 100 percent." (1)

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft

The simple collection of data will neither prevent so-called "racial profiling" nor accurately document a law enforcement agency's activities as a means of protecting it from public criticism, scrutiny, and litigation. (2) Statistics represent meaningless numbers unless they are put in a relevant context or used as a legitimate means of comparison. (3) Standing alone, statistics, much like legal arguments, can be used to make or defend any position that someone may adopt on an issue. Law enforcement agencies, therefore, must take additional steps to ensure that the numbers they collect accurately reflect reality and support the positive enforcement and crime prevention efforts that they conduct. (4)

UNDERSTANDING THE TERMINOLOGY

Understanding the terminology of racial profiling constitutes the first step to gathering relevant statistical information. As some commentators have noted, the use of race for law enforcement purposes is unconstitutional when it is the factor used in selecting potential criminal suspects. (5) Other commentators have described the problem as a "targeting of individuals for police investigations based on their race alone." (6)

Because the Constitution requires that a law enforcement officer have "reasonable suspicion to stop and detain a person," (7) no one disputes that stopping or detaining individuals because of their race or ethnicity is unconstitutional. As two researchers describe it: "There is no one list of factors that gives rise to reasonable suspicion, as the varieties of suspicious behavior are as diverse as the types of activity punishable under the criminal law. However, reasonable suspicion may not be based on race alone." (8) No Fourth Amendment action, be it an investigative detention, an arrest, or a search, can be undertaken based solely upon race. Therefore, officers who base their Terry stops or other investigative activities on a suspect's race alone violate the law and are guilty of misconduct that very well may be sufficient to terminate their employment. (9) In short, no circumstances exist under which officers may stop citizens based solely on their race, sex, religion, national origin, or sexual orientat ion. Rather, officers must base stops on reasonable suspicion--facts and information that they can articulate, which, in turn, lead to their sense of suspicion that a violation of law has been or is about to be committed. (10)

The law enforcement community must strive to remind the public and the press of the correct definition of the problem, lest they come to believe that race has no importance in the investigation and prevention of crime or that such uses are improper.

For instance, the race of an at-large suspect often represents an important identifying characteristic that agencies must include in radio broadcasts. (11)

Similarly, law enforcement officials should remain alert to any inappropriate use of terminology that is not legally accurate or recognized, but appeals to the emotional or political aspect of this debate. For example, some legislative proposals use the terms consensual and nonconsensual when setting parameters for data collection relating to searches of motor vehicles. The term nonconsensual conveys that a search was conducted by use of force against the will of the individual, rather than on a recognized legal basis, such as incident to arrest. (12) Law enforcement authorities should avoid such misleading terminology because it creates mistaken and unfavorable impressions.

EXPLORING THE PROBLEM

Apparently, the public has come to believe that if the police are required to keep a record of their investigative activities, the "problem" (13) of racial profiling will be curtailed. …

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