The Evolution of the Profile

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By Lisa Martinelli

Jack Glaser is a social psychologist and Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley whose primary research interests are stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. He is also interested in the police practice of racial profiling, especially as it relates to the psychology of stereotyping. He has recently initiated research on capital punishment, the effect it has on legal decision-making, and how that interacts with a defendant’s race. In addition, Dr. Glaser is involved in training California State judges in the psychology of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination, and how they might operate implicitly, and undermine fairness, in the courtroom.

Martinelli: Most of the general population would define racial profiling as police making stops based solely on somebody’s racial or ethnic background. Is that accurate?

Glaser: Racial profiling is the use of race as one of one or more factors. When we say “profile,” we mean a multifaceted description. If the police were using race as the sole basis of suspicion, they’d be stopping no whites and all minorities, or at least aspiring to do that. That would not be racial profiling but full-on racial oppression. So, really what we’re talking about is the race of a suspect influencing the determination of suspicion as one of multiple factors.

Martinelli: Can you speak briefly about how the psychology of discrimination influences police officers?

Glaser: When you have police officers deciding whom they should stop, question, and search, they’re using a lot of discretion to make a fairly subjective judgment about who looks suspicious to them. And because there’s a prevailing stereotype that blacks and Latinos are involved in more crime, whether people acknowledge or endorse it or not, that colors the judgment that officers make of any one individual. That makes it so that a minority individual, particularly young black men, have to reach a lower threshold of suspicious behavior in order to be identified as suspicious.

Martinelli: Can racial profiling be effective in some situations?

Glaser: I believe that there are conditions under which it could work, but those would have to be fairly extreme and they’re almost never represented in reality. If one group was overwhelmingly responsible for one particular type of crime, and people from other groups were basically just not committing that crime, or committing it at such a trivially low rate that they were virtually not committing it, then it would be an efficient strategy. But that’s rarely the case.

In fact, in the most commonly profiled crimes, there’s no indication that blacks or Latinos are committing them at a higher rate. The only evidence that suggests they’re doing it more is in the criminal justice statistics, which are confounded by the racial profiling in the first place. Even if one were to argue that minorities are committing drugs crimes at a higher rate, the rate that they’re committing them at is not dramatically higher than whites. And so what happens is if police are profiling them, they’re going to catch more and more people from that group because they’re diverting their resources to that group. They’re going to incarcerate more and more people from that group, and they’re going to continue focusing on a group whose offenders in the at-large population are getting fewer and fewer. In the meantime, they’re ignoring, or giving less attention to, a whole population of criminals in the majority population.

Martinelli: I’ve read statistics from the Institute on Race and Justice that indicate minorities tend to be searched more often but not arrested because it takes a much higher level of suspicion to arrest someone than it does to do a search.

Glaser: Correct. You can’t really arrest somebody unless you find evidence of them committing a crime. For example, in New York City where the NYPD is stopping between six and seven hundred thousand people a year, with a fairly low threshold of suspicion, only about 6% of those lead to arrests. The arrests occur when they find drugs or illegal weapons on the person that they’ve searched. They’re more likely to arrest whites who they stop because they have to exhibit more suspicious behavior to get stopped and searched in the first place.

Martinelli: Society’s perception of the issue of racial profiling is almost as important as the problem itself. Do you agree that the media has a significant effect on how people perceive it?

Glaser: I do, but I wouldn’t say that the media has overstated the racial-bias-in-policing problem. I think if the media did an honest accounting of whether or not racial profiling is happening, they would have to indicate that it’s fairly prevalent. More glaring to me are the tendencies of the mainstream news media to report crime and to overrepresent crime in general so that people have a distorted sense of how often it’s occurring, particularly violent crime. There is also some evidence that [the media] are more likely to report crime perpetrated by minorities. That’s, I think, a bigger problem. I do agree that when people perceive the police acting in an unfair and biased manner, they will tend to have less trust in the police. There is even some evidence in the domain of immigration law enforcement that white citizens trust the police less when they think that they are profiling Latinos. So it’s not even necessarily restricted to the minority groups who are being profiled.

Martinelli: What are the long-term social effects of racial profiling?

Glaser: They’re very severe. One way to think about it is that if the police are devoting more attention to members of minority communities, they are going to be stopping more blacks and Latinos, and just as a mathematical necessity, going to be arresting and incarcerating more of them. Regardless of what their actual offending rates are, [minorities] are going be getting arrested and convicted and incarcerated at a higher rate, so the profiling itself will cause the disparities that we see in the criminal justice system, or it will exaggerate any disparities that would be there as a result of different rates of offending. About 5-6% of black males are incarcerated right now and the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 32% of black men born in 2003 will be incarcerated at some point in their lives. That’s a big cost to that community and to the larger American community. The collateral effect of those high rates of incarceration are devastating. They disenfranchise voters, they account for lost wages and employment opportunities, they break up families, and they even have health effects on the larger community that cascade out of the prison. The drug crimes that are being profiled are non-violent, almost exclusively, so it’s not buying us a lot of public safety but rather causing a lot of harm to minority communities.

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  1. June 3, 2015

    […] film claims throughout that it is ineffective to “ignore” race. Social psychologist Dr. Jack Glaser makes frequent appearances and elaborates on the concept of socially stigmatizing others and […]

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