Offender profiling (or “criminal profiling”) dates back to Dr. Thomas Bond who tried to aid Scotland Yard in the search for Jack the Ripper. It was used in the United States to help capture George Metesky, aka “The Mad Bomber”. Now it’s widely used by law enforcement and is a common feature in movies and television.
With the professionalization of police work beginning in the mid-19th Century scientific methods and disciplines were incorporated into police investigations. This included the use of behavioral sciences and data analysis.
The first use of profiling was to identify and capture specific criminals. Then somebody got the bright idea to use existing data on crimes and criminals to predict future criminal behavior. Then you can tell the cops when and where to patrol and who to look for.
In the mid 1980’s the crack cocaine epidemic started. George H. W. Bush gave a speech while holding a bag of confiscated crack. Congress authorized big bucks to deal with this new front in the War on Drugs™. The DEA led our nation’s law enforcement agencies in attacking this horrible scourge.
When Prohibition was enacted in 1920 it provided a huge economic opportunity for anyone willing to smuggle and sell alcohol. Local gangs in Irish, Jewish and especially Italian neighborhoods were the best positioned to take advantage of that opportunity.
Just as with Prohibition the crack epidemic brought with it huge illegal windfalls and violent “turf” wars between competing gangs. Typically, the most violent and ruthless gangs prevailed.
When the crack epidemic started it was the black and Hispanic gangs that were primarily involved in the importation, distribution and sale of cocaine. Major importation routes went through south Florida, Texas and California and then used airlines and interstate highways to distribute the drug throughout the United States. large amounts of illegal cash were brought back via the same routes.
The DEA took note of this and prepared “drug courier profiles” to aid local law enforcement in spotting and interdicting these criminals. These profiles mentioned race as one of many factors to look for. These factors were supposed to be used in determining probable cause to search.
But race was never intended to be the sole factor and the undisputable fact that most drug couriers were young black and Hispanic males does not mean that most black and Hispanic males were drug couriers. The misapplication (or over-application) of race as part of profiling drug couriers led to accusations that the police were engaged in “racial profiling”.
A new meme was born.
Nowadays when someone says “That’s profiling!” what they really mean is “That’s racist!” Sometimes they are correct. But quite often they are not.
Data can be very malleable. That is where the expression “massage the data” comes from. That is why it is difficult to find “hard” data on racial profiling.
There is data that indicates that traffic cops stop people of color in numbers disproportionate to their share of the general population. Is that proof that racial profiling is taking place?
Maybe. Or maybe not.
Cops tend to patrol high crime areas more frequently than low crime areas. This means they will see more violations in high crime areas simply because they patrol there more often. High crime areas tend to be low-income areas. People with low-incomes are more likely to drive older vehicles with mechanical defects. They are also more likely to have expired registrations but they are less likely to have insurance.
Last but not least, low income areas tend to have disproportionate numbers of people of color. So even without racism you should expect disproportionate numbers of people of color getting stopped by the cops.
Did George Zimmerman “profile” Trayvon Martin? I can’t say because I can’t read minds. On the other hand I don’t see any evidence of racial profiling.
But what if he did?
What if George Zimmerman was 100% completely wrong to be suspicious of Trayvon Martin? What difference does it make to his guilt or innocence?
Trayvon Martin is dead because he attacked an armed man. Nothing that Zimmerman did justified that attack.
The jury agreed with me.