Racial Profiling

In June 1999, President Clinton issued an executive memorandum requiring all federal law enforcement agencies to collect information on race, ethnicity, and gender of every person who was subjected to a search. He called it “Fairness in Law Enforcement: Interior Collection of Data”.

It was drafted in response to the much debated police tactic which is now called “racial profiling”. “Profiling” began when police started using extensive resources to collect data - age, gender, life style (not sexual), psychological, and, yes, racial - which would give them a “profile” of a person most likely to commit certain crimes.

For decades, “profiling” has helped police agencies identify and arrest serial killers, prolific burglars, terrorists, and the like. In recent times, the positive aspects of “profiling” have been overlooked. One characteristic of the “profile” is being questioned - race. The ACLU has set up a toll free number for reporting incidents of “DWB” - Driving While Black. They chose the digits “1-877-6-PROFILE”. Within a year, Connecticut, Kansas, North Carolina and Washington instituted laws requiring police to record racial data on the people they encounter. Missouri will soon follow suit.

I’m confused about this clamor for police officers to document the nature of every call and the race of the people encountered. I’m told that it’s an attempt to prevent racial profiling. Isn’t it racial profiling when officers make concentrated efforts to note the race of everyone they encounter?

When I write a traffic ticket, there is a box that asks for race. I leave it blank. Who am I to determine the race of a person just by looking? Isn’t that racial profiling? I could be providing false information that will label that person for life. I also left it blank on my census form. When the census taker visited my home, he took it upon himself to check off “white”. According to my research, my paternal ancestors had a substantial amount of land and slaves. Isn’t it possible that I have some “black” blood? My maternal family descends from the settlers who arrived on the Mayflower yet some of my cousins have black skin. Are they black or white? Am I? Who decides?

If skin tone alone is how we will determine a person’s race, will cops be equipped with tint meters that will tell us whether the color of a person’s skin will be legally categorized as “white” or “black”? Perhaps there will be a fine tuning device that will tell us whether the “black” person is African American, Puerto Rican, Native American, or Cape Verdean. Perhaps it will grade a “white” person according to pigmentation. Any rating below 50% "white" could be classified as “mixed race”. And what about Asians? Is there a third, or fourth (or fifth) color we can add to the statistics?

And if lineage will be the determining factor, how will we obtain that information? “Excuse me sir, I need to know the nationality of three generations on both sides of your family tree so I can fill out this form.” And what do we do if a man with pale white skin identifies himself as black because his father or grandmother was black? Arrest him for determining his own race? And will we judge those of mixed ethnicity by their paternal or maternal heritage? Which is more important?

Perhaps DNA will be the determining factor and every American citizen will be required by federal law to carry a card documenting the government’s official classification of his race. Perhaps the magnetic strips on our new driving licenses will include that information. Is the day far off when we will be required to “swipe” the licenses at every store and restaurant to compile more statistics.

The bottom line? Yes, there are some police officers who judge people by the color of their skin. There are also shop keepers who follow young customers around their stores, and bankers who deny loan applications because a person doesn’t speak perfect English, and teachers who don’t spend as much time encouraging girls to go to college, and reporters who insist on adding “black” or “hispanic” or “female” to their descriptions so often that we all know the absence of those adjectives means the person was a white male.

Still, racial statistics are a step backward. Suppose we begin to require officers to record the race/color of every person encountered. How soon before we begin to evaluate the officer’s performance based on those statistics? How soon before officers begin to fear being fired because they have dealt with more “whites” than “blacks”, with more “blacks” than “mixed race”. At some point, officers will begin to practice selective law enforcement in order to maintain acceptable statistics. Then, when the month of December is coming to a close and an officer realizes s/he has stopped 20 white motorists and only 5 black, s/he will turn the other way when a white motorist speeds by. Perhaps that motorist will travel a few miles further and run straight into a crowded bus stop.

Why hasn’t anyone directed an assault at the other aspects of profiling? No one is bashing “profiling” by age, gender, life style, or psychological background. Perhaps it’s time we did.

Perhaps my insurance will go down when insurance companies are prohibited from asking the age of drivers, and classifying the younger ones as an insurance risk.

Perhaps your daughter will come home with straight A’s in science after the media is prohibited from publishing statistics that say boys are better in math and science.

Perhaps my cousin who enjoys sampling many different jobs instead of remaining in one career will not be denied a mortgage application when banks are prohibited from referring to statistics that show she’s a bad investment.

Perhaps that boy down the street who finds pleasure in dismembering small pets will achieve his dream of attending medical school, or becoming a police officer. No, wait, perhaps not.

Perhaps “profiling” has its advantages after all.

It is right for the public to keep abreast of the activities of the police but it is wrong to judge us all according to the behavior of a few. The few bad seeds will be weeded out. The rest of us are here for you 24 hours a day, on weekends and holidays, and when our kids are sick. We don’t care what race you are, any more than you care whether the officer giving mouth to mouth to your child is black or white.

Do not believe your television. Portrayals of cops are about as accurate as General Hospital’s portrayal of doctors. How many of us believe that all doctors are adulterous drug addicts involved in a murder cover up?

Cops are not inherently racist, nor do we become racist after graduating from the police academy. We try very hard to judge people as individuals, even when they are spewing racial or sexist slurs at us. And we are all trained to protect your civil rights. I invite every person who feels differently to attend a citizen police academy or to accompany a police officer on patrol.

It’s very easy to play “breakfast-nook-quarterback” while others are actually out on the street facing life or death situations while you sleep. My mother always reminded me to “look before I leap”.

I offer those words of wisdom to those clamoring for racial statistics.

Jill Wragg is a retired police officer in Massachusetts.
She can be reached at JKWragg@yahoo.com


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