Racial Profiling: What It Is and Why It Must End 

On April 20, the women’s lacrosse team was heading back from a competition in Florida when a sheriff’s detail pulled over their bus for what deputies said was a traffic violation.

A video recorded by a teammate, who was also on the bus, shows two police officers stepping onto the bus. At the same time, one of them proceeds to ask the team to confess if anyone has marijuana, devices to smoke, or “questionable” items.

The team’s bus was filled with about 25 students returning from Florida when they were stopped on I-95 in Liberty County. 

DSU’s head coach Pamella Jenkins told Atlanta-Journal Constitution that she believes the deputies stopped the bus because most of the players are Black–About 60% of the university’s students are Black.

Jenkins recalls six white officers and a search dog investigating the bus for drugs — without probable cause.

“(The deputy) quickly went to marijuana, which stereotypically is unfortunately associated with African Americans. That’s the first thing that he went to,” Jenkins said.

This is everyday racial profiling – and it doesn’t just hurt the victims. It has an insidious ripple effect on the rest of society – in business, health and public safety.

What is Racial Profiling?

“Racial Profiling” refers to the discriminatory practice by law enforcement officials of targeting individuals for suspicion of crime based on the individual’s race, ethnicity, religion or national origin. Criminal profiling, generally, as practiced by police, is the reliance on a group of characteristics they believe to be associated with crime. Examples of racial profiling are the use of race to determine which drivers to stop for minor traffic violations (commonly referred to as “driving while black or brown”), or the use of race to determine which pedestrians to search for illegal contraband.

Another example of racial profiling is the targeting, ongoing since the September 11th attacks, of Arabs, Muslims and South Asians for detention on minor immigrant violations in the absence of any connection to the attacks on the World Trade Center or the Pentagon.

Is Racial profiling legal?

Police powers to stop and search vary from place to place. But ethnic or racial profiling—the targeting of specific individuals or groups based on appearance—constitutes illegal discrimination under U.S.,l law.

Who does ethnic profiling affect?

Minorities and immigrant communities across the United States have reported discriminatory treatment by the police.

In the United States, racial profiling continues to be a prevalent and egregious form of discrimination [PDF]. Police officers across the United States routinely stop Black and Latino men without cause. Since September 11, 2001, racial profiling has become much more prevalent for Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities. Equally troubling are local immigration laws that invite rampant profiling of Latinos, Asian-Americans, and others presumed to be “foreign,” based on how they look or sound.

Is it a useful law enforcement tactic?

No. Ethnic profiling is not only unfair but also ineffective and counter-productive. When law enforcement officers treat an entire group of people as suspicious, they target many innocent people and are likely to miss criminals who do not fit the profile. Reliance on ethnic profiling does not improve hit rates, meaning the proportion of identity checks or stops and searches that lead to formal law enforcement action (like arrest).

What is the impact when powers like stop and search are not used with care?

For those who find themselves pulled aside for frequent or abusive stops based solely on their appearance, these stops are often embarrassing, humiliating, and even traumatizing.

People regularly stopped by the police lose confidence in law enforcement agencies. This lack of confidence reverberates through their family, friends, and communities, negatively affecting police-community relations and leading to decreased cooperation with law enforcement agencies. 

What you can do If you have been targeted in a profiling incident

Knowing your rights is the key to knowing what to do if you find yourself a victim of profiling. Although different types of situations require different actions, knowing your civil rights well enough so that you can exercise them is critical in all profiling cases. At the minimum, you should know that you have the following basic rights:

You have the right to remain silent. The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees individuals the right not to answer questions posed to them by law enforcement or other government agents. Law enforcement agents may ask questions, but individuals cannot be arrested simply for refusing to answer them.

You have the right to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” The Fourth Amendment protects your right to privacy. Without a search warrant, law enforcement and other government agents may not search your home or office without your consent.

A useful source of information on the legal and civil rights of both citizens and non- citizens is a pamphlet called “Know Your Rights: What to Do If You’re Stopped by the Police, the FBI, the INS or the Customs Service.” Available in seven different languages, this pamphlet can be found on the ACLU website.

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