The use of profiling as a law enforcement tool is extremely controversial — especially when race or ethnicity is used as a key indicator to determine if a person should be considered a security risk. While the majority of Americans think that detaining individuals because of race is inappropriate (see the Flashpoints USA nationwide survey), there are those who believe that the practice of singling out certain groups for greater scrutiny is an acceptable law enforcement procedure.
Detroit, Michigan is home to the largest Arab-American community in the United States. Since September 11, the FBI in Detroit has nearly tripled the number
of agents assigned to investigate terrorism. The community, already under close scrutiny by law enforcement officials, has found itself under even tighter watch since
the start of military involvement in Iraq.
The FBI has questioned numerous Arab-Americans in hopes of tracking down any information or leads about possible sleeper-cell terrorist plots.
Lawyers and government officials say they believe hundreds of illegal immigrants, mostly Muslim, have been deported from the Detroit area.
Arab-American leaders and civil liberties advocates are extremely concerned about these investigations. Nabih Ayad, a Michigan attorney, represents many of the families who have been questioned. He believes his clients are interrogated solely because of their ethnic background.
To Ayad, even the government's voluntary registration system is a form of profiling. Ayad states, "When the government comes out and says they are going to register certain individuals from certain countries — that's profiling at its face ... There is a falsity out there that you have to take away civil liberties in order to have security."
On the other side of this issue, Steve Pomerantz, Vice President of the Institute for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence and former Assistant Director of the FBI, sees profiling as a valid law enforcement technique. A profile, Pomerantz explains, "is built on analysis of a particular criminal activity" and is based on objective facts.
While Pomerantz acknowledges that, "profiling solely on the basis of ethnicity or religion is simply wrong and shouldn't be done," he maintains that in some instances those factors must be a part of the profile. Pomerantz states, "There are countries in this world that are state sponsors of terrorism. I think it's reasonable to look at citizens from those countries in terms of potential terrorists."
For Pomerantz there are two truths at the heart of the debate. One, which he believes that both sides agree on, is that "most Arabs and most Muslims, certainly in the United States, are not terrorists, do not support terrorists, and do not condone terrorism." But keeping that in mind he believes America must face a second truth, which is that "right now the terrorist threat in this country emanates out of the Middle East, and we can not be blind to that."
In June 2003, the Justice Department issued guidelines banning the use of race or ethnicity in profiling at all 70 federal agencies with law enforcement powers. Those guidelines directly affect about 120,000 U.S. law enforcement officers. The policy makes a clear distinction between routine law enforcement work and law enforcement that involves national security or border security.
Although reliance on racial and ethnic stereotypes is broadly forbidden, the new guidelines say that authorities can subject certain ethnic or racial groups to greater
scrutiny if there is specific information that such a group is preparing to mount a terrorist attack.
This exception has caused criticism from those who feel that the guidelines do not go far enough to stop ethnic profiling. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, for example, has called the guidelines disappointing and claims profiling will continue to be a problem for the hundreds of Arab, Muslim and south Asian communities who have "borne the brunt" of racial and ethnic profiling since September 11.
Examine the story of the Evansville 8, read the profiling debate transcript, or add your comments to our online discussion.