The War on Perception


By Lisa Martinelli

On any given day, U.S. law enforcement officers pull over thousands of people driving along our nation’s roads and highways. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in 2008, 17.7 million people above the age of 16 indicated that their most recent contact with police occurred during a traffic stop, accounting for 44% of all face-to- face interactions U.S. residents had with police that year.

Considering so many of our encounters with police occur on the roads, and our news headlines are plagued by reports of motorists who have been racially profiled, it’s no surprise that some communities suffer from resentment and distrust of the very people meant to serve and protect them.

Recent statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau reveal that 49.9% of American children under the age of five are minorities. As the concept of a “minority” changes and the country continues to grow, the need for a colorblind criminal justice system grows as well. And as the nature of crime changes, the public has a responsibility to show support for law enforcement’s main objective: to minimize crime.

In 1999, Senator Alvin Penn made Connecticut the second state in the country to pass a bill regarding racial profiling. The Alvin W. Penn Act prohibits police from stopping/detaining people based solely on their race, ethnicity, age, gender, or sexual orientation, and requires departments to collect traffic stop data to help eradicate racial profiling and keep officers unbiased. Matthew Catania, an officer in Connecticut since 1985 and current Plainville Chief of Police, feels strongly about collecting data and investigating citizen complaints.“The police have an obligation to be as transparent as possible in our demonstration that we’re not looking to racially profile. If we’re not doing anything wrong, there’s nothing to hide,” says Catania. “And my position is: I’d like to know if my officers are racially profiling. So it starts with that.” To Catania, keeping the data is imperative because “it sends a message to everyone else in the organization that we’re looking, and that’s very powerful. We care, and that’s why we’re looking.”

In order to resolve the issue of racial profiling, it is important that both police and citizens understand it. Criminal profiling is a well-known and long-standing practice which relies on a coherent set of facts––observable behavior and physical characteristics––to suggest criminal activity, and is meant to aid police in arresting the guilty. Controversy arises when the suspect’s race or ethnicity is one of the criterion initiating police action, at which point profiling becomes racial profiling. While tracing the history of racial profiling in America is difficult, and the idea of targeting specific groups¬¬ based on difference has existed for centuries, our country’s War on Drugs has exacerbated the issue because it focuses so intently on racial and ethnic background as a means of profiling drug dealers.

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) began using the term “profiling” in the late 1970s when they developed a drug courier profile reliant on these factors in hopes of enhancing their ability to stop drug traffickers. According to the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University (IRJ), in the mid-1980s the DEA trained police agencies to apply the drug courier profile though no nationally recognized profile ever existed, leaving each state and individual department to work from their own interpretations. A 1991 publication in the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review noted, “By endorsing a reasonable suspicion stop based on a drug courier profile, but neglecting to define standards or limitations for these profiles, the Court allows a reasonable suspicion stop to be predicated upon an officer’s subjective interpretation of what characteristics a drug courier should display.” In other words, officers could use extraordinary individual discretion in deciding who “fit the profile,” something that grew distorted over time and resulted in some police targeting minorities for traffic violations as a pretext to determine if they carried drugs.

This often intentional use of discrimination contributed to a change in public perception of the police and their objectives.

It then became difficult for many communities to trust law enforcement. The Penn Act tried to rectify the problem in Connecticut by requiring police to record traffic stop data, a relatively unsuccessful effort since many departments did not consistently submit, and it can be nearly impossible to ascertain if race or another factor initially caused an officer suspicion. Indeed, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2000, most officers indicate that “by following any vehicle for one to two minutes, they can observe a basis on which to stop it.” So if an officer wanted to pull over a young black male, for example, it wouldn’t be difficult to find a non-race-related reason to do so.

The new method of standardized data-collection and analysis goes into effect on October 1, 2013, and additional data elements will examine various aspects of the stop more thoroughly, such as the duration of the stop, if a consent search took place, and the results of searches among other things. Since post-stop data can more accurately identify racial profiling due to a more comprehensive overview of the stop, it then seems more productive to examine the disparities in the treatment of motorists after the stop has occurred.

In 2011, The Hartford Courant examined data from 100,000 traffic stops made throughout the state in an effort to analyze the importance of post-stop data. They found that violations like driving with a suspended license left police with little room for personal judgment regarding the resulting action, producing a high and consistent percentage of drivers receiving a ticket or summons regardless of race or ethnicity. The racial and ethnic disparity widened in categories involving more police discretion, such as with moving violations and equipment problems, like performing an improper stop and violations on tinted windows.

In every category, Hispanic drivers were the most likely to receive a ticket. While police reprimanded black drivers more than they did whites in most of the categories, they were also about three times as likely as white drivers to be searched, and about twice as likely as Hispanics. These statistics indicate more racial profiling when police use more discretion.

But there is one question that even the most comprehensive data can’t answer: what others factors, aside from race or ethnicity, influence an officer’s use of discretion? Can the motorist have more of an effect on the stop than we might think? Chief Catania says, “Sometimes, it seems that the issue of bias becomes just as much the perception of the person who is aggrieved or offended.” In other words, if a person believes an officer has racially profiled him before the encounter begins, his attitude based the part of police administrators to change the ways officers consider racial differences. “Record the data of who we stop and the color of their skin, and their gender and everything, and it gets us only so far.” He argues that administrators need to “instill a sense of honor and duty in [officers] to lead them away from a biased manner of thinking.” This leadership philosophy will help alter the public’s opinion of police while changes in policy affect the manner in which officers perform improved data-collection and analysis methods along with a more thorough complaint process for those who feel they have experienced unfair treatment. With these measures in place, the public has the opportunity to help make progress with a problem that’s troubled us for too long. Regardless of whether racial profiling is real or perceived, it undermines our trust in the system–– and therefore undermines the system. The responsibility to change falls equally on everyone’s shoulders.


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