The LAPD announced yesterday that after investigating 320 claims of racial profiling, not one could be sustained. The police commission is incredulous—”I find it baffling that we have these zeros.” said one commissioner. But a ctually, it’s not baffling at all.
The Los Angeles Times reports that the investigations concerned “allegations that officers stopped, questioned or otherwise confronted someone solely because of the person’s race.” I’m not at all baffled that none of the incidents investigated involved profiling, so defined. If profiling means stopping someone solely because of race, I’m willing to bet it almost never happens. But it’s well-documented that police do consider race—along with other factors such as age, sex, grooming, attires, demeanor, context, and behavior—when making traffic and pedestrian stops. I suspect the commissioner quoted thinks any use of race counts as “profiling”—that’s basically the position of the ACLU and other civil rights organizations. But the police, not surprisingly, employ a narrower definition.
The problem with the narrow definition is that it doesn’t encompass the problem—the police can be as biased as a lynch mob and still never “profile.” The problem with the broader definition is it hampers legitimate police methods. If the police know a racially exclusive gang is active in a certain part of town, do we really want them to ignore race entirely when patrolling there? What if the gang is on a crime spree at the time? What if they just robbed a bank and several witnesses describe them to police? At some point, the line between “profiling” and a manhunt for specific criminals, whose race is known, gets hard to draw.
As I’ve argued in my book, The Race Card, the reason racial profiling is one issue that almost everyone can agree on (we’re against it) is that no one bothers to define profiling very well. In fact, there’s almost a silent conspiracy among civil rights activists, government officials, and law enforcement to keep the definition as murky as possible. The activists demand an end to “profiling”—meaning any use of race in traffic stops; in response, police promise not to “profile”—meaning stopping people based solely on the basis of race. The activists get a symbolic victory; the police get a PR victory—nothing changes. Like an international treaty, the best way to get to a consensus is to let everyone interpret the key terms to suit themselves. Until, of course, it comes time to enforce the treaty …