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Evan Horowitz | Quick Study

A look at racial profiling

Hillary Clinton spoke at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta on Friday. Tami Chappell/REUTERS

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton provided her criminal justice proposals Friday afternoon, including calling for the elimination of racial profiling.

Federal agencies, such as the FBI, are already prohibited from targeting suspects based on race — with an exception for airports and border crossings.

Clinton would extend this ban to cover state and local police forces. And given that racial profiling is quite unpopular among Americans, it could seem like a winning issue, politically.

But there is a counter-argument, which has been articulated by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg in defense of the city’s “stop and frisk” program, namely that sometimes racial profiling can be a necessary part of effective law enforcement.


What’s the argument against racial profiling?

When police start targeting people based on their race, it effectively puts a whole community under suspicion. What is more, it virtually guarantees that the innocent will regularly find themselves stopped by police, for little reason beyond the color of their skin.

Racial profiling can also poison relations between police and the populace. When minority groups feel that they’re under constant suspicion, they’re less likely to entrust police with information that can be vital to solving crimes. This is one reason some law enforcement groups oppose racial profiling.

Why do some police forces still profile?

The principal job of any police force is to keep communities safe. If police genuinely believe that the greatest threats come from one particular racial or ethnic group, they might heighten their scrutiny of that group.

New York’s now-curtailed “stop and frisk” program provides a good example. At its height, the program allowed police to question, and potentially search, any pedestrians they deemed suspicious.

Overwhelmingly, though, it seems to have targeted African-Americans. In 2012, more than half of those stopped were African-American, even though that group makes up just a quarter of the city’s population.


When pressed on this point, however, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg insisted that there’s a good reason: Black residents are also disproportionately involved in crime.

By this logic, asking officers to stop more white and Hispanic citizens, just to match the city’s overall population, would be a willful waste of resources. Police should pay more attention to minority groups if those groups are more commonly involved in criminal activities.

What do the American people think?

A large majority of Americans are opposed to racial profiling, according to poll numbers. A Reason magazine survey from last year, asking people how they felt about stopping drivers and pedestrians based on their racial or ethnic background, found that 70 percent disapproved.

An older Gallup poll suggests that opposition is slimmer when you ask about profiling in airports, but even then a majority of Americans stand opposed.

Are there laws against racial profiling?

At the federal level, the rules are quite strict. Agencies such as the FBI and Immigration enforcement can’t target people based on their race, religion, national origin, or gender — except at airports and near border crossings.

Elsewhere, though, the laws are more patchwork.

For years, a comprehensive “End Racial Profiling Act” has been floating through Congress, one which would ban the practice across the country. But for now, racial profiling is still permitted in some places.

According to the NAACP, there are 20 states that do not explicitly ban racial profiling, and many others where the ban is incomplete or inadequate.

Massachusetts, for its part, has some provisions to track police interactions and watch for evidence of profiling, though there have been efforts to strengthen those initiatives.


Will Clinton’s plan become law?

There’s a big difference between a campaign pledge and an actual ban on racial profiling. Before she can turn her rhetoric into reality, Hillary Clinton still has to win the nomination, then the presidency, and then convince Congress to pass a bill (this isn’t the kind of thing that would be easy to do via executive order).

But campaigns often run on a very different kind of logic. It’s not just that becoming president would help Hillary Clinton enact her criminal justice plans. It’s that announcing those plans may win her new support among voters and help her win the presidency.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the U.S. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.