Racial Profiling

March 13, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST


GWEN IFILL: In 1992, Robert Wilkins, a Harvard educated lawyer, was driving with three relatives on a Maryland highway. A state trooper pulled them over and tried to search their car.

ROBERT WILKINS: And when I pushed him as to why he thought we were suspicious, and why he thought he had a right to do this to us, he said, “Well, we’re having a problem with rental cars and drugs.” And that wasn’t really a satisfactory response because, as I told him, I said, “I know that you are not stopping everyone in a rental car and searching them. And driving a rental car isn’t any reason for you to think that somebody is suspicious and they might have drugs.”

GWEN IFILL: Wilkins believes he was stopped simply because he is black. He sued the Maryland State Police, and was awarded a $96,000 settlement. As part of the deal, state troopers must now record the race and the gender of the drivers they stop.

Allegations of racial profiling went national in 1998. That’s when two white New Jersey troopers shot and wounded three of the four unarmed Blacks and Latinos traveling in a van they had stopped. The men sued, and settled for $12 million.

JOHNNIE COCHRAN: By virtue of the actions of these young men and our representation of them, we now have had that state acknowledge racial profiling existing for a substantial period of time, and these young men have been the leaders in that effort.

GWEN IFILL: Drivers all over the country have said they have been targeted by police. They call it “driving while black”. And dozens of law enforcement agencies and civil rights groups have begun gathering information on the practice. The Department of Justice released its own survey, this week, on police contacts with the public. Its findings: More black than white drivers were stopped in 1999 – 12 percent to 10 percent. But more than twice as many blacks and Hispanics were searched when they were pulled over, 11 percent, as opposed to 5 percent for white drivers. 90 percent of those searches uncovered no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

In his first message to Congress, President Bush instructed his Justice Department to target racial profiling.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Too many of our citizens have cause to doubt our nation’s justice when the law points a finger of suspicion at groups, instead of individuals. Earlier today, I asked John Ashcroft, the Attorney General, to develop specific recommendations to end racial profiling. It is wrong and we will end it in America. (Applause)

GWEN IFILL: Attorney General Ashcroft has met black lawmakers and asked Congress to help finance a study of traffic stop data.

JOHN ASHCROFT: If you’re an affected individual here, the statistics about how many it affects or doesn’t affect somewhere else in the culture don’t mean much to you, because for you it’s 100 percent. 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. It’s wrong.

GWEN IFILL: But what exactly is racial profiling? For answers, we turn to Kenneth Meeks, managing editor of Black Enterprise magazine, he is the author of a book titled, “Driving While Black”; David Harris, a law professor at the University of Toledo, has written extensively on racial profiling; and two police chiefs, Robert Duffy from Rochester, New York, and Robert Olson, from Minneapolis.

Mr. Harris, could you please start us off by helping us with some of the research you have done defining racial profiling. What is it?

DAVID HARRIS: Well, certainly. Racial profiling is not a legal term. It’s just a way of describing a set of police tactics. A profile is nothing more than a group of characteristics that we think are associated with some particular kind of behavior in this situation crime. It becomes racial profiling when race or ethnic appearance plays a role in who police decide is suspicious.

And what has happened over the years as we’ve begun to study this is that we notice that in certain places, many places– though not all places– police action has an impact on racial groups, especially African-Americans and Latinos. They are stopped and searched in numbers that are far out of proportion to their presence on the road and far out of proportion to anything that would have anything to do with their driving behavior. So what is happening is that race is being used as a kind of proxy, as a substitute to allow police to focus on one particular group that they think has a higher chance of being involved in crime. That’s the nut of what racial profiling is.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Harris, what is wrong with using a descriptive characteristic such as race to target people who might be wrong doers? There are those who, for instance, argue that more black people may commit crimes. And so therefore why wouldn’t you stop them out of proportion? Is that true?

DAVID HARRIS: There’s nothing wrong with using a racial characteristic as a description, but using it as a prediction is quite different. When we use race to predict who we think might be criminals, what we do is we subject everybody in that group to treatment as a potential criminal. I think we all recognize as Americans that’s not right, that’s not fair; it’s wrong.

Now is it true that African-Americans are arrested and jailed disproportionate to their numbers in the population? Yes, that is true. That’s a very unpleasant fact but it’s a fact nonetheless. The thing is, you cannot draw from that that it makes sense to then stop all the African- Americans or high percentages of African-Americans or Latinos that you run into because even if there is more criminal involvement, the great, the vast majority of these people are innocent, hard-working, tax-paying, right-living citizens. And to use arrest rates turns the whole thing around. Arrest rates don’t measure criminal offending. Arrest rates are a measurement of police activity. So the whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and a circle.

GWEN IFILL: Kenneth Meeks, is there a broader concern at work here than just traffic stops when we talk about racial profiling?

KENNETH MEEKS: Definitely. Definitely. My definition of racial profiling tends to expand beyond just state troopers and minority motorists because we can be racially profiled walking into a department store, coming up to a kitchen counter or any kind of counter or even in restaurants. I mean, we are racially profiled on a much broader sense of the word, I mean of the nature of this crime. I think that, you know, one of the things that we have to look at is when we come into U.S. Customs, you know, black women are… for a long time we were like 20 percent more likely to be stopped coming through Customs than anybody else. So racial profiling does extend beyond just the highways.

GWEN IFILL: Chief Duffy, the kind of settlements in cases we’ve heard about puts pressure on local police or state police in law enforcement. Do you have any sense that there is statistical evidence to support these allegations, by and large, or is it mostly anecdotal?

ROBERT DUFFY: It’s a combination of both. Statistics definitely play a role but there are plenty of anecdotal stories, which also I think tell us all that there is a problem whether real or perceived. I think it is incumbent upon leadership in police departments and police organizations to ensure that the Constitution is followed and the definitions that were used relative to racial profiling I would agree with. Race as a sole determinant should never be used in terms of police actions. But I think the bigger picture here and probably the bigger problem is an issue of trust. I think there is a lack of trust in many communities in law enforcement. It’s incumbent upon us as police chiefs and police departments to work hard to earn that trust. Because I think we have lost it over the years by virtue of some of the problems that we’ve seen.

GWEN IFILL: Chief Olson, what’s your experience with that? Is this a matter of trust, number one? And number two, do you have any evidence in your jurisdiction that this is a problem?

ROBERT OLSON: Well, I think I would echo what Bob just said. There is a perception in our new immigrants and our communities of color that this is going on. And the anecdotal evidence demands that we in law enforcement really look at this in a systematic way, and one of the best ways to begin solving this issue– and there is a problem– is to collect data so that we have some good baselines from which we can go forward to root out any of those causes.

You know, you have to understand that our police departments are made up of people from the community. And they have the same biases and prejudices that the community does. So we have to expect that though most officers clearly would abhor and not doing anything like racial profiling, there could be some of that going on. And we have an obligation to those new immigrants and people of color, we need to get in there and find out and then figure out how we can stop it.

GWEN IFILL: So, in your department, what do you do about it? How do you root out people’s ingrained societal biases?

ROBERT OLSON: Well, you start with your selection process, and that’s the long-term issue and doing the proper testing to find people with those tendencies. Frankly, you don’t hire them. You then have good internal processes so that when people come to you with complaints about that kind of thing and others, that you have a good process to root it out and get rid of the officers who would act that way. And then on the other side of that, you have to reach out to the community. I think that’s the big one there. You’ve got to develop data, do it by neighborhood because neighborhoods are all different. You need to come out forward with them and show them just what’s going on and be up front about it.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Harris, there are those who would argue that the reason why racial profiling has taken hold as you define it is because it works. Does it work?

DAVID HARRIS: No, ma’am, it does not. And that’s one of the great myths of this. Racial profiling does not work, and the evidence for that is in the statistics that have been gathered in places like Maryland and New York and New Jersey and a whole host of others over the last few years. If race actually predicted a higher rate of criminality, what we would see is that the success rate for searches of African-Americans and Hispanics would be much higher than the success rates for searches of whites. And in all those jurisdictions that I mentioned– and others– what we actually find is that the success rates or the hit rates as I call them in my work are the same between blacks, whites and Hispanics or they’re even lower for minorities — even lower. So that tells us that this is not smart policing. It is not effective policing. It is not efficient policing.

There is an ingrained belief that the right way to police and to go where the crime is is to go and focus and target minorities, but it just doesn’t turn out to be true. The numbers do not support it. And the result is, as the chiefs were saying, there has been a breakdown of trust. And trust is central to the success of police because police today know that they cannot do the job of cutting crime alone. They need the support of the community. And if they don’t have it, that’s going to hurt everybody, not just the people who are profiled erroneously, but the general officer out there on his job, her job, trying to cut crime is going to be hurt by this because he won’t have the trust of the community.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Meeks, your magazine and the book you write is targeted to an audience, which feels itself to be disproportionately affected about this. What do you tell them about this? What do you tell them to do?

KENNETH MEEKS: About racial profiling. Well, we tend to say if you happen to be stopped by police officers, let’s be conscious of our demeanor and our behavior because we don’t want our actions and our reactions and our emotions to get us killed — particularly when we’re talking to an officer who has a gun and a badge. I tend to tell people, let’s complain, file a formal complaint against people who profile us, whether it be a police officer or a manager in a store or someone at a sales clerk, let’s file a complaint. Let’s leave a paper trail so that if this person decides to profile somebody else and somebody else complains, then, you know, we can show a pattern of behavior because profiling is hard to prove. You very seldom have a smoking gun in someone’s hand when it comes to, you know, getting people or convicting people on profiling. And that’s just a small fraction of what things we need to do.

GWEN IFILL: Chief Olson, do you worry at all that your officers who are concerned about being accused of this would as a result be less likely to pursue reasonable suspects, that this might hinder your investigative work?

ROBERT OLSON: Well, yes, there is a possibility. That’s why I kind of worry about how it gets couched in the media and whatnot that a lot of good, hard-working officers are out there. And they kind of take affront at that. And there is always the fear that there would be a chilling effect on some of their other law enforcement activities, but even putting that aside, however, you can’t sit with your head in the sand and do nothing. America’s law enforcement community has to step up to the plate here and start dealing with this issue.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Chief Duffy, you heard the president talk to John Ashcroft about doing something, not sticking their heads in the sand as Chief Olson just said. What do you do? How do you legislate against what you describe as a lack of trust or even just bad will?

ROBERT DUFFY: I think legislation probably has a lesser effect than good leadership and reinforcement throughout our organizations. I agree with the comments that were made tonight. I think there were a couple things I would like to reinforce. First of all, police officers need to have information at their fingertips through technology because we cannot police by probability. We need facts.

I think we try and establish probabilities; that is when I think you cross over the line and we get into this area of profiling. I think as I said, racial profiling should not be a part of any police department. I also think we have to reinforce with our officers how important it is to do various policing in our neighborhoods to focus on crime. We should always police with great respect. And that should be reinforced routinely in organizations. And I think the most important part is establishing relationships with our community. If we establish those relationships, we build trust and we also get the information that is so specific to crime and to problems that there is no need to rely on probabilities and profiling.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Harris, we only have a few seconds. Does that sound right to you? Is that the way you approach this?

DAVID HARRIS: That’s the way you go. You cannot legislate trust but you can use legislation to make a good start. I agree with what the chief said. It’s not possible to attack the problem by attacking officers. We have to look at this what it is: It’s an institutional practice that has gone unexamined for too long. And we all– police and public– have an interest in examining this, because it’s not just a problem for minorities or black people or people of color; it’s a problem for every American who believes in fairness.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. We’ll have to leave it there. Gentlemen, thank you all very much.