Wednesday, August 10, 2005

What is Profiling?

Cross posted at "Thoughts of an American Centrist"

To begin an embroiled debate centered around the tension between law enforcement, anti-terrorism, and civil liberties, one need only mention the word "profiling." Of course, it's not profiling per se which gets people so uppity, but rather what they assume you mean, namely, racial profiling. Racial profiling by definition describes the automatic suspicion of guilt based solely on race. I will acknowledge that such a practice is discriminatory, counter-productive, and insulting. However, I don't want to talk about racial profiling today. Instead, I want to talk about profiling of a different type: behavioral profiling. I believe that creating a sketch - a profile - of the types of people likely to commit terrorist acts is absolutely essential to successfully protecting the public good.

Webster's lists one definition of the word "profile" as:

4 : a set of data often in graphic form portraying the significant features of something... a graph representing the extent to which an individual exhibits traits or abilities as determined by tests or ratings

Note the use of the term "significant features." The word is plural. To effectively hold an accurate mental picture, police officers must be able to look for and recognize a variety of factors, including reticence to questions, nervous glances, paranoia, when appropriate, race. Racial profiling is not the act of using race as one piece in a criminal profile, but of using race as the only characteristic.

Kira Zalan writes a very compelling argument for including race in the list of factors that make up a terrorist profile:

We must stop pretending that the terrorists so far, by-and-large, have not been of the same ethnic origin. This will reasonably narrow down the search for potential perpetrators. But, it makes ALMOST as little sense to stop every Arab or North African in NYC today as it does to stop every 5th random person. Therefore, the profiling must be even more exact than race to be effective.

Israel has been perfecting the art of profiling, and has successfully prevented El Al (national airline) hijackings since 1970. The profilers are trained to look for signs of suspicious behavior (body language), which provides effective clues of whom to question. Barring exceptional con artists, body language is a dead give away of suspicious behavior. In fact, police officers are trained to look for such clues when dealing with everyday criminals.

The results: plenty of Arabs fly El Al, and yet enough people have been turned away to prevent terrorist attacks since 1970.

So why not fly some Israelis to NYC to train New York’s finest on such tactics?

Now that idea makes a lot of sense.


At 2:15 PM, Blogger Jerry said...

I'm white and I used to live in a black neighborhood. I was stopped and questioned a few times by the cops. That's racial profiling, and it really doesn't bother me, because yeah, a young white dude walking through a violent black neighborhood is suspicious.

Of course, I wasn't arrested, detained, beaten, or killed. (Though my name apparently got put on some sort of druggie watch list, which annoyed me when I found out several months later.) I think a lot of the folks who object to profiling of Arabs and/or Middle Easterners in general may be thinking of this violent form of profiling when they object. That is, maybe it's not the profiling itself they object to, but rather the things that too often happen after someone has been profiled. I could cite a few reports of black men being killed by cops after they were stopped in traffic, for doing nothing worse than driving through a white community.

So, sure, use racial profiling as part of anti-terrorism measures. We just have to make sure people aren't being sent to Gitmo just for being brown.

At 2:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Racial profiling on an informal basis is probably bound to happen regardless of that so-called "process" that may be written or codified. People are going to perceive people however it is driven into their skulls by their environment.

However, codifying it in any way provides yet another aspect of that "environment". We have to be careful that we don't necessarily provide backup to those idiots who like to take things into their own hands.

In that sense, I think that training people in enforcement roles to add certain ethnic groups to their list-of-things-to-watch-out-for is a long-run recipe for a world that is even further divided than it is now.

At 2:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agreed, anon....and isn't Isreal and El Al a prime example of this self-perpetuation of division?

At 3:25 PM, Blogger Jonathan C said...

Perhaps I was misunderstood. I was not advocating racial profiling, but instead advocating the use of race as one of many factors involved in sifting suspicous individuals from the throngs of people that pass through our airports and subways every day.

The difference is that racial profiling would simply state "stop all Arabs," while a detailed profile would state "stop all males of Middle Eastern decent who are acting paranoid, seem preoccupied with their knapsacks, and are overly reticent to questioning."

At 10:33 AM, Blogger Jerry said...

Sorry, Jonathan.

I actually did get your message that race should be one of many factors in profiling, but my comment focused only on the most controversial aspect of your idea. I think you're right on the mark in your comment.

Given the intense focus Americans put on race, it may be hard to (A) make race truly one factor among many, rather than the one factor that eclipses all others, and (B) get over the appearance of racial discrimination that many people will find, even in an even-handed application of a profiling system like Kira Zalan describes.

At 1:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, I understood your article, Jonathan. I agree with Jerry: the hard art is making sure people aren't being sent down the river by their peers (important distinction: most other countries do not try capital crimes using a jury of peers, who may be more likely to take codified racial profiling at any level to be evidence that those brown folks are all evil. Over time, that is...)

That's the tough part, at least in the US....

At 12:21 PM, Blogger MPH said...

right on!


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