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Police And Racial Profiling

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Racial profiling has been prominent in the U.S. for centuries and has brought alongside a violent history of discrimination, prejudice, racism, and political issues. The idea that we are in a post-racial society, while a great thought, is simply not the case; even with former President Barack Obama becoming the first black man in the oval office. Problems within the police force and legal systems have caused ill perceptions of minority communities, specifically African American communities, allowing institutionalized racism to become the normal. The purpose of this paper is to explore the history of racial profiling in our police. Examine institutionalized racism, cover what racial biases are, how they are practiced.

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Police and Racial Profiling

There are several underlying factors that contribute to racial profiling in America between the police and Black Americans and other POC. Racial biases in America cause our officers to be disproportionately investigating minorities, while unconscious racism and institutionalized racism dismantle minority communities through biased policing practices. The factors that are addressed in this paper are racial biases, unconscious racism, institutionalized racism, and biased police practices.

Racial Biases

When discussing racial biases and racial profiling, one must first understand what racial profiling is along with the different types of biases that may or may not occur. Racial profiling is the practice of subjecting citizens to increased surveillance or scrutiny based on racial or ethnic factors rather than ‘‘reasonable suspicion.’’ The way racial biases operate is fairly simple and can be viewed through the different types of biases. There’s implicit bias which are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form due to their upbringings and environment. These include stereotypes such as “women can’t drive” or “black people can’t swim”. Outside their own conscious awareness, unconscious bias is the selection of individuals, groups or data for analysis in such a way that proper randomization is not achieved, thereby ensuring that the sample obtained is not representative of the population intended to be analyzed.

Unconscious Racism

One factor that contributes to racial profiling and disparity in the police is unconscious racism. Racial prejudices are prevalent in American society as a whole however when the police in particular stereotype young black men as dangerous it is especially harmful to the black community. Police who hold these unconscious prejudices are more likely to stop and frisk presumably innocent citizens, while these same unconscious prejudices can be harmful to the police themselves, such as when they underestimate the threat a woman presents and fail to fully search for hidden weapons (Fridell 2015). Even skin tone has also has been shown to have an effect on both the likelihood of being stopped and the chance of being arrested (White 2015). White showed that for African American males, the grade of skin tone (from 1 being darkest and 5 being white) had a direct and significant impact on the chance of them being arrested. The effect of this racism does not stop there however, research has shown that when with different people of a different race or ethnicity background, the officers decision to shoot is often affected by that of the person in question. One study used images of both armed whites and African Americans and unarmed whites and African Americans, and participants were asked to accurately and quickly identify a threat and either shoot (in simulation) or press a “don’t shoot” button. In a replication study the time given to identify a threat was decreased and unsurprisingly the error increased. The study using both officers and citizens found there was a significant racial bias in both groups while officers were more accurate in correctly identifying a threat, attributed to their deadly force training (Correll & Keesee 2009).

Institutionalized Racism

Institutionalized racism can be seen in many institutions including our police, places of employment, even in our banks and ability to acquire credit. Our police perpetuate this institutionalized racism by disproportionately stopping and arresting people of color.

War on Drugs

The “War on Drugs” is arguably the most important element when the subject of racial bias and institutionalized racism comes into conversation. From the early 80’s and into the modern era, drug addiction and dependency has been prevalent among minority communities and the left. While health professionals agree that addiction is a disease that requires medical attention our government saw an opportunity. Instead of drug addiction being viewed as a mental health issue, one that should be treated by a doctor, our government decided to make drug use and subsequent addiction a criminal offense. By punishing addicts through our criminal justice, they could target a specific group of people, stripping them of basic rights such as being able to vote in some states and being able to own a firearm in any. As seen in the Netflix documentary 13th (DuVernay, 2016) former Nixon advisor, John Ehrlichman, admitted the war on drugs was about targeting black people and the anti-war left. “The Nixon campaign in 1968 and the Nixon white house after that had two enemies: the anti-war left, and black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.” The War on Drugs is the backbone of institutionalized racism, a national infrastructure to target people of color, the left, and primarily, black men. Minimum and maximum sentencing also came from the War on Drugs policy, this policy, while thought to account for personal circumstances in the instance of a crime, including drug use, has been used to the detriment of people of color who usually receive a harsher sentence than whites for the same crime. Social context may bring about negative racial/ethnicity-based stereotypes along with the perception of threat by Racial Group Theory. In regard to sentencing, Racial Group Threat Theory, suggests that minority groups are more pronounced and actors in the courtroom may have the perception of one particular racial/ethnic group as being more dangerous or disrespectful morally (Ulmer, 2012). Such minorities might result in receiving harsher sentencing.

Biased Police and Practices

Abuse of Power

In some instances of police using an abuse of power, there is significant evidence that when an officer perceives that he/she is being disrespected, disagree, will abuse disorderly conduct and similar statutes to arrest non-complacent citizens. Another common police practice that was used that is no longer, was “Stop and Frisk”. The Stop and Frisk policy was heavily used in New York City under the “broken windows” policy. This police program that exercises frequent stops and frisks, and/or traffic stops. This is often felt and seen by black Americans as unnecessary harassment from the police. (Epp & Maynard-Moody & Haider-Markel 2014). The central query about quit and frisk that needs addressing is this: if contributors of minority communities are disproportionately concerned in crimes of violence and carrying concealed weapons on the street, is it defensible, and constitutionally acceptable? For police officer to take account of a person’s race in determining whether or not to make a “stop,” and then whether to interact in a frisk (which is viewed as acceptable due to the risk), is this really justified? (Greenwalt, 2014). Someone’s race cannot be enough to provide probable cause to pull someone over, question them and then possibly end up arresting them (Greenwalt, 2014).

Excessive Use of Force

There is controversy surrounding the prevalence of the use of excessive force by police. The perception of the excessive use of force varies by racial groups. 30% of black Americans feel the use of excessive force happens to them “very often or fairly often”. Only 8% and 23% of white and Hispanic Americans respectively feel that it happens to them ( Bureau of Justice Statistics 2014).

Police Shootings

During the span from 2014-2016, we did not have any reliable data on the number of citizens shot and killed by the police. The FBI will report it, but the data collection system is voluntary. According to FBI, in 2014, 444 people were shot and killed by police (FBI, 2014). In 2015 the Washington Post used all data sources that were available (local news, public records, and internet sources) and collected police shootings for the entire year (Washington Post 2016). In that year, police had shot and killed 986 people. African Americans were shot and killed, three times the rate at which whites were. Surprisingly “The Guardian” found after compiling all of their research together that in 2015, 1,134 people had been shot and killed by the police (Washington Post 2016). It’s a shame that we have all of this data research on how many people die from cancer and what types. Motor vehicle fatalities. So many examples of data research that is available and ready but yet, there’s nothing for national data on citizens shot and killed by the police.

Along with police shootings, there also seems to be a couple of patterns that occurs with them as well. The first being the rate at which Black Americans are killed by police. After collecting data research, The Washington Post found that in 2015, Black Americans were three times as likely to get shot as whites. The second pattern shown is that the police are more likely to shoot unarmed Black Americans. Then the question of unconscious bias enters. Is it true that there are racial motivators that would compel an officer to shoot an unarmed black man, then an unarmed white man? Racial prejudice is spread throughout all of American society. Police officers aren’t exempt either. Some police officers may have the stereotype of associating black Americans with being dangerous or criminal.


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