Background and Current Data Collection Efforts
History of Racial Profiling Analysis
The debate over racial profiling has become a central element in a much larger history of adversarial relationships between the police and communities of color. Already-existing tensions between police and communities of color became heightened over the past two decades as allegations of racial profiling by law enforcement agents against people of color increased in number and frequency. Police departments and communities of color are now asking how they can address the controversy in order to improve police-community relations and work to become more effective in law enforcement activities.
A "profile" is a coherent set of facts - known conditions and observable behavior - that indicate a particular individual may be engaged in criminal activity. The technique of "profiling" is a well-known and long-standing law enforcement tactic.
The term "profiling" first became associated with a method of interdicting drug traffickers during the late 1970s. In 1985, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) instituted Operation Pipeline, an intelligence-based assessment of the method by which drug networks transported bulk drugs to drug markets, and began training local and state police in applying a drug courier profile as part of highway drug interdiction techniques. Under Operation Pipeline, police were trained to apply a profile that included evidence of concealment in the vehicle, indications of fast, point-to-point driving, as well as the age- and race characteristics of the probable drivers. In some cases, the profiling technique was distorted, so that officers began targeting black and Hispanic male drivers by stopping them for technical traffic violations as a pretext for ascertaining whether the drivers were carrying drugs.
A 1998 U.S. Department of Justice investigation of activities of the New Jersey State Police raised awareness of the issue and defined racial profiling in the public eye as the practice of singling out members of racial or ethnic groups for relatively minor traffic or petty criminal offenses in order to question and/or search them for drugs, guns, or other contraband. Throughout the investigation, the American news media exploded with coverage of the problem of racial profiling, with front-page news stories and editorials in both the national and local press examining its individual and social costs. The allegations became so common that the community of color derisively labeled the phenomenon "driving while black" or "driving while brown." The DOJ New Jersey investigation concluded with evidence of pattern and practice of conduct violations that resulted in a DOJ-NJ State Police Consent Decree.
Since the New Jersey findings, police departments have begun to analyze their own activities and communities have begun to demand more police accountability around the issue of race. In early June 1999, President Bill Clinton spoke at the Strengthening Police-Community Relations conference in Washington, D.C., and directed federal agencies to begin the process of collecting data on the race and ethnicity of persons stopped or searched by federal agents. According to a Gallup Poll released on December 9, 1999, over half of those polled believed that the police were actively engaged in the practice of racial profiling, and, more significantly, 81 percent said that they disapproved of the practice.
A few short years later, more than 20 states have passed legislation prohibiting racial profiling and/or mandating data collection on stops and searches, hundreds of individual jurisdictions have voluntarily begun to collect data, and several jurisdictions are collecting data on racial profiling as a result of federal or state court settlements or consent decrees. In February 2001, during an address to a joint session of Congress President George W. Bush said of racial profiling, "It wrong and we will end it in America." Although questions about the use of racial profiling have emerged since September 11, 2001, many people around the country continue to work to end the practice permanently.