Recent public opinion surveys have revealed that the vast majority of Americans believe that use of racial profiling by the police is widespread.1 This is deeply disturbing for two reasons. First, it is disturbing because it undermines police legitimacy among the vast majority of our citizens. Second, it is disturbing because the vast majority of law enforcement officers I have known do not engage in bias-based policing. While racial profiling likely occurs among a small number of individual officers acting outside the bounds of their oath to uphold the Constitution, it is unlikely that racial profiling is systemic to law enforcement in the United States.
This begs the question, then, why do so many people perceive that racial profiling is widespread? We could blame individual members of the news media that seek to raise their ratings by stoking the flames of controversy, or certain protest organizations that seek to capitalize on distrust of the police. To be sure, these sources have contributed to the problem. Another factor that has also contributed to the problem, however, is the fundamentally flawed information that many law enforcement agencies have given the public through their biased-based policing data that was gathered and reported incorrectly.
Many law enforcement agencies gather data on the race and gender of the individuals their officers stop, search, and arrest. They report these data to the public in a biased-based policing report. Agencies produce these reports for a variety of reasons, such as statutory requirements, as part of their compliance with CALEA Standard 1.2.9.d, or simply out of a sincere desire to embrace transparency. While most law enforceme nt agencies, and individ ua l officers, claim they do not racially profile, the vast majority of these reports show members of minority groups, especially African-American men, are disproportionately stopped, searched, and arrested. Why? One factor at work is the use of incorrect research methodologies and measures that are biased (often unintentionally) against officers from the start. One of the most damaging of these incorrect methodologies is the use of U.S. Census data as a benchmark comparison.
In order for any racial profiling data collection activity to be meaningful, the racial composition of police stops, searches, and arrests need to be compared to something. A benchmark is generally defined as a point of reference from which measurements may be made; something that serves as a standard by which others may be measured or judged; or a standardized problem or test that servesasabasisforevaluation orcomparison. Inthecontextofbiased-basedpolicing evaluations, a benchmark is the percentage of a racial or gender group that one would expect to be encountered if officers were not biased.
For example, imagine that 20% of the people speeding down a particular stretch of roadway were male and Hispanic. This makes 20% our benchmark for speeding stops of male Hispanics. We would expect that unbiased stops by police for speeding in this area would show that only about 20% of those stopped for speeding were male Hispanic drivers. However, where do we get these benchmarks? Unfortunately, most of the benchmarks used are fatally flawed. These flawed benchmarks consistently suggest officer bias, regardless of what officers are actually doing. The most common flawed benchmark is U.S. Census data.