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Racial profiling doesn't work

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While one of the most common initial responses to racial profiling is a denial that it occurs, there are some who do not deny its existence but rather argue that it does and should occur because it is a useful and appropriate tool to focus limited resources on those who are most likely to be engaged in inappropriate behaviour.

However, there is strong evidence that racial profiling does not work. In fact, where racial profiling has been studied in the context of law enforcement, such as in the United States, it has been found by some scholars to be neither an efficient nor effective approach to fighting crime.[26] Studies in the United States have consistently found that while minorities (African American and Latino persons) were targeted more, the chance of finding contraband when their cars were searched was the same or less than White persons. In several studies, minorities were found to be statistically significantly less likely to have contraband found following a search. For example, a 2001 U.S. Department of Justice report on 1,272,282 citizen-police contacts in 1999 found that, although African Americans and Hispanics were much more likely than White persons to be stopped and searched, they were about half as likely to be in possession of contraband.[27]

These studies have led experts in the United States to conclude that focusing only on one group will likely lead to persons who are committing crimes in other groups, often at the same rates, going unchallenged.

Similarly, when the U.S. Customs Service reformed their search procedures to eliminate racial, ethnic and gender bias in their search activity while instituting stronger supervisor oversight for searches, they were able to conduct 75% fewer searches without reducing the number of successful searches for contraband carrying passengers. And, the hit rates were essentially the same for ‘Whites’, ‘Blacks’ and ‘Hispanics’. This means that by eliminating racial profiling, the Customs Service was more efficient and equally likely to catch passengers carrying contraband while reducing the number of innocent people who were subjected to the indignity of a search by three-quarters.[28]

In addition to evidence concerning the ineffectiveness of racial profiling, it is also a practice that is logically flawed. Experts point out that even if certain crimes are mostly committed by members of a particular group, it does not mean that a particular person from that group is more likely to have committed a crime.[29] And, even if more crime is committed by a certain group that make up a small percentage of the population, it is still more likely that any given crime will have been committed by someone belonging to the majority group.[30]

In any event, statistics suggesting that a particular group commits a disproportionate amount of crime can often be skewed because of racial profiling itself. If a particular group is stopped more often, even if they are committing less crime than the rest of the population, the fact that they are scrutinized more frequently will result in higher charge rates. This then becomes the justification for profiling. Some scholars therefore argue that, at the end of the day, statistics do not tell the offending behaviour of different races, but rather they measure the actions of the entity engaging in profiling.[31]

Therefore, there is significant evidence that racial profiling is neither an efficient nor an effective practice. And, the discussion that follows shows that racial profiling comes with a huge price tag to individuals, families and communities while negatively impacting the very institutions that practice it.

[26] Numerous surveys in the United States, the largest being a survey by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics which reviewed 1,272,282 searches of citizens by police in 1999, have revealed that the chances of finding contraband after searching minorities (Black and Latino) are the same or less than finding evidence of crime on White persons searched. Similarly when the U.S. Customs Service re-evaluated their search procedures to eliminate racial, ethnic and gender bias in their search activity, they were able to conduct 75% fewer searches without reducing the number of successful searches for contraband carrying passengers: Lamberth Consulting, “Racial Profiling Doesn’t Work”, supra, note 20.
[27] This has led experts in the United States to conclude that profiling doesn’t help the police catch criminals: see D.A. Harris, Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work (New York: The New Press, 2002), in particular Chapter Four, “The Hard Numbers: Why Racial Profiling Doesn’t Add Up” at 73-90.
[28] Lamberth Consulting, ibid.
[29] An assistant professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, Jack Glaser, points out the illogicality of racial profiling by noting that if you see a pregnant person, that person must be a woman. But, if you see a woman that does not lead to the conclusion that she is pregnant. In fact the vast majority of women will not be pregnant: J. Glaser, “The Fallacy of Racial Profiling” San Francisco Chronicle (5 December 2001).
[30] Racial profiling has been justified by arguing that some groups commit a disproportionate amount of crime, relative to their percentage in the population. However, this approach has been argued to be logically flawed, as it is actually more likely that a member of the majority group will have committed the offence. For example, if group A represents 20% of the population but commits 40% of violent crimes and group B represents 80% of the population and commits 60% of violent crimes. It is true that group A commits a disproportionate amount of violent crime. However, if a violent crime takes place, it is still more likely that it was committed by a member of group B – a 6 out of 10 chance. It would therefore make more sense to be looking for someone in group B. A profile that looks for someone in group A will be wrong more than half the time: T. Wise, “Racial Profiling and It’s [sic] Apologists” Z Magazine (March 2002), online: Z Magazine <>.
[31] Profiles of Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work, supra, note 27.

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