Racial Profiling and Data Collection

Over the last several years, allegations of racial bias in traffic stops have become so common that the practice has been popularly labeled as “DWB” (Driving While Black.) Racial profiling is the practice of targeting or stopping a pedestrian or driver based primarily on their race, rather than any individualized suspicion or crime. Is racial profiling really discrimination or just good police work? I have found that it depends on whom you ask and what definition of “racial profiling” they believe.

Yost Zakhary, Public Safety Director of the city of Woodway, Texas believes that racial profiling occurs, but not at the rate many claim. Zakhary, a native of India, says the percentages show blacks commit more crimes. Any violation of the traffic code is a legitimate reason for pulling a driver over, Zakhary says. He also mentions the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics that found that blacks comprised 12% of the American population and 50% of the prison population.

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He states that statistics show blacks are eight times more likely than non-blacks to commit a crime. “Unfortunately, Zakhary states, in racial profiling if blacks are more likely to commit crimes than whites, innocent blacks are more likely than innocent whites to have encounters with police. He gives the example of a description of a black man wearing a red jacket. Police officers will target ALL black men that might be wearing red jackets. Innocent blacks would be questioned because they might fit the description, it does not mean officers are discriminating or using racial profiling in a negative way. Zakhary is in favor of “data collection” and says the cameras in patrol cars provide accountability for his officers.

There are many individuals and organizations willing to offer solutions to what President Bush called “a national problem.” Racial profiling is one of the most critical issues facing law enforcement today. In order to address this problem, legislation should be introduced to include “a standard definition” of racial profiling. The first step towards a solution to address racial profiling is to develop and enforce police policies which prohibit racial profiling in cases where it is clearly wrong. For example, when an officer stops a car based off the fact the driver is of a certain race and then looks for a possible traffic violation. “Racial profiling is difficult to define and also difficult to detect when shrouded behind a traffic stop that seems legitimate in every other way.” (Holbert, 2004) Policies should also include mandatory data collection and the effort to place video cameras in each police vehicle.

According to the ACLU, (American Civil Liberties Union) the number of states collecting data has increased but many states have been slow to enact effective legislation to outlaw the practice of racial profiling. The analysis of data can be critical in helping diagnose the types and levels of bias within the agency as well as helping develop systems to eliminate bias. Many believe that data collection is not effective and will show to be expensive and time consuming.

Others believe the value of data collection clearly outweighs any time and costs. However, data collection done incorrectly can lead to misunderstandings and a waste of time. Standards on data collection must be developed. One of the major benefits of implementing a data collection policy is that it sends a strong message to the community that the department is against racial profiling and that racial profiling is not consistent with effective policing and current policies and procedures.

In Chapter 14 of Multicultural Law Enforcement, strategies for peacekeeping in a diverse society, the authors explain that when racial profiling becomes an issue, many agencies begin collecting data on the race/ethnicity on the people stopped and/or searched by police. “Many state agencies and highway patrols actually require officers to report demographic information for divers and passengers when they stop motorists and vehicles for violations.” (Strom, 1999) Collecting data is crucial from a public policy point of view, and it is critical from a police management and public service point of view. “Collecting data and interpreting them, if done correctly, reflects accountability and openness on the part of the agency.” (Shusta, 2005)

Data collection has been met with negativity by many officers who feel the process has the potential to escalate an already tense situation because having an officer ask a driver what race or ethnic group they belong to could make them irritated and possibly cause a hostile reaction. Those in favor are quick to argue that the data collected is not based on what race or ethic group drivers actually belong to, but what race or ethic group the officers think they belong to. The entire data collection process is based off the officer’s perception of the driver. Data collection is necessary to identify the problem and necessary that sufficient categories of data are recorded. The necessary categories are: location of the stop, date and time of the stop, the reason for the stop, the race, age, and gender of the driver, their disposition and data related to any searches.

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