"Racial Profiling"

The View From A Squad Car

Lately there has been considerable honking and blowing in the press about "racial profiling" by the police. People who make their livings by being in an uproar are. Columnists emit boilerplate indignation. Politicians pose. Legislators threaten to pass laws ending this iniquity. Etc. Regarding which, a few thoughts:

If columnists, and a lot of other people, spent time in police cars (I do: I've written a weekly police column for the Washington Times for half a decade), they would discover all manner of interesting things. For example, that "profiling" means recognition of patterns. If you call it profiling, or much better, "racial profiling," you can make it sound evil and discriminatory and establish a category of victims.

Not exactly.

To begin with, the imputation of racial hostility without establishing it is dishonest and, often, nonsensical. For example, in Washington the majority of cops are black, and much of the time we have had a black chief. For another, although again you have to have some first-hand knowledge of the police to know this, black cops behave just like white ones.

Cops, who are on the streets forty hours a week, notice consistencies. For example, youngish women, in fishnet stockings and plastic miniskirts up to their armpits, lounging against lampposts in red-light districts, tend to be prostitutes. So the cops check these women out. They do not check out elderly women in minks, or men with brief cases, for prostitution. The police do not have a vicious prejudice against plastic miniskirts. Nor do they hate young women. They simply know from endless experience what kinds of people are usually engaged in prostitution.

This is profiling.

They also know that scruffy homeless-looking men, walking down back alleys in pricey residential neighborhoods with VCRs under their arms, are quite likely to have stolen the VCRs. So they check them out.

This too is profiling.

Possibly a woman in a Saran-wrap tank top and a thong bikini just likes Saran wrap. Maybe she's wearing a thong bikini because the weather is warm. Maybe she is on her way to a costume party. Or took a wrong turn on the way to the beach. And perhaps the scruffy guy is an eccentric millionaire like Howard Hughes, taking his VCR for a walk. Maybe some charitable rich guy gave a bum a VCR out of the kindness of his heart.

So, yes, you could say that checking out half-naked women on street corners, or derelicts with expensive items, is discrimination. They might be innocent, yes. And it's certainly profiling.

But it is the soul of police work. Scruffy people who go into expensive department stores, in baggy clothes, and then proceed to look furtively around them and brush up against merchandise, are often shoplifters. This recognition is profiling. Perhaps they are innocent--honest paranoids, or have merchandise-brushing personality disorder. But people who work in security in those stores know what shoplifters look like. And so they watch them.

Security personnel at airports look for certain kinds of people--those who fit the terrorist profile. IRS audits people who meet certain standards. On and on. It isn't that airports carry irrational prejudices against people who twitch and sweat and have ticking shoulder bags (or whatever is on the profile: I don't know). If you wanted to sit home and twitch, or if they knew for a fact that the ticking came from an innocent alarm clock, they would have nothing against you whatever. But they know from experience that certain things give away terrorists. So they check out those people. Do you want them to stop?

Problems arise when the targeted class belongs to a politically sensitive group, especially if it is a racial group other than white. (Although profiling can affect whites. If the police check out a slinky white woman who keeps approaching men in the bar of a classy hotel, she may turn out to be promiscuous heiress, which it isn't illegal to be. She raises Cain because she has been humiliated. And she probably has been.)

What usually makes the news is profiling of blacks. The fact is that most street-level drug dealers in Washington are black. Blacks are heavily involved in transportation of drugs for sale. Should you doubt this, ask any cop of any color. Dealers look and behave in certain ways, and are certain kinds of people. They are black, scruffy, young, hang in certain places, display certain body language when cops are around. So cops check them out.

The downside of profiling is that, while young black males on I95, wearing scruffy clothes and driving rentals with no baggage, are in fact often drug couriers, often they aren't. Sometimes they are innocent kids of black doctors, wearing scruffy clothes because it is the current teenage way of annoying their elders. These kids get very sick, very fast, of constantly being stopped and humiliated in front of their girlfriends. I don't blame them. Your choice: Let the drugs through to avoid embarrassing the innocent kid, or embarrass the kid and get the drugs. That is precisely the choice. Let's not pretend otherwise.

It is also true, but verboten to point out, that race and crime are very closely correlated. When I go into the security rooms of the big department stores around the Pentagon (usually to pick up a shoplifter), the photographs of previously collared boosters are almost entirely black. The region isn't. Now, you can explain this correspondence as you like: You can blame society, blacks, whites, capitalists, racists, the weather. You can say it's my fault, your fault, God's fault. But it's a fact, politically palatable or not. Cops deal in facts, not theories.

Cops check out those who fit the patterns.

Racial discrimination? Seldom. The same majority-black cops who check out likely black drug dealers would just as quickly check out whites if the whites fit a pattern. They assuredly do check out prosperous-looking whites with Virginia and Maryland tags who park in bad black sections of Washington. Anti-white prejudice? Nope. They know they are there, almost certainly, to buy drugs. Whites from McLean don't have poor black friends in Anacostia.

Profiling.