No one should be surprised with the verdict that the Maricopa Sheriff’s Department is guilty of racial profiling. While some might be outraged, they shouldn’t be; it is that behavior that many Americans precisely demand of law enforcement agencies.
At the heart of the problem is the images and language that the media, politicians, and others use to describe terrorism and immigration and the resulting expectations that emerge from these images.
Let us briefly reflect on two recent events, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and the Boston Marathon Bombing, we see the divergence in rhetoric. It is important to note that each case could be defined as a lone-wolf terrorist attack. Yet, with the Sandy Hook case, the shooting itself was initially called, and is still classed as, a “school shooting.” The perpetrator was Adam Lanza, a white, native-born American has been cast as deranged and mentally ill, but not a terrorist. Conversely, the Boston Marathon attack was immediately called a “terrorist act” and its perpetrators, who were two Chechnyan brothers who had naturalized as American Citizens, “terrorist suspects.” The point I wish to make is that it is absurd to fail to refer to the Sandy Hook shooting as a terrorist attack.
Yet, the divergent rhetoric stemming from each case is interesting. With Sandy Hook, the resulting gun rights debate centers around the idea rights and liberty as guaranteed by the US Constitution. With Boston, the debate surrounds around the state’s capacity (or need) to limit the rights of individuals. Interestingly enough, personhood is protected by the US Constitution. Citizenship was not even defined in the US Constitution until the 16th Amendment. Nonetheless, there is a clear prioritization of rights within the current political discourse which, ironically, minimizes the rights associated with personhood.
The separation of images, like those used to describe incidents like the Sandy Hook shooting and the Boston Marathon bombing, casts certain people as likely violent offenders based on racial, ethnical, and national characteristics. The images tied to the threat of terrorism have resulted in laws which effectively diminish the rights of people based on their appearance or ethnic background. Since 9/11, public opinion has approved of racial profiling, even if it results in the loss of liberty for some, for the sake of security . Politicians have responded by passing laws, such as the Patriot Act, which grants more rights to the federal government to investigate and detain people, particularly non-citizens.
The use of imagery to target specific portions of the population goes beyond the rhetoric of terror. In addition to race, policies have been developed which result in the profiling of people based on their current location or socio-economic status. Notably, non-citizens are not the only targets of laws designed to increase the powers of government.
In New York City, “stop-and-frisk” is practiced. Mayor Bloomberg argues that the tactic provides results in that it reduces crime. However, at the center of the controversy is the massive disparity of those who are stopped; 88 percent were either black or Hispanic. (Interestingly enough, those whites who are searched have weapons or drugs on their person twice as often as minorities.) In addition to the asymmetric application of stop-and-frisk, it has been argued in court that officers are encourage to run up their numbers in order to provide a measure of their individual efficacy within the NYPD.
Running up of numbers is a little studied topic within criminology, but an important one. If it occurs, we could predict an erosion of trust between the police and the members of the public most affected.
In many large urban centers in the US, we live within a “CompStat” world of policing, where statistical metrics are used as empirical indications of police performance. As a result, there are indications that police in departments which use CompStat-type systems are under pressure to deliver statistics. One police officer I interviewed indicated to me that profiling was part of his job, since doing so would increase his changes of being able to levy a charge which, no matter how minor or trivial, would then reflect positively on his performance. Importantly, the lack of statistics would reflect negatively on his performance. Clearly, the rhetoric tied to CompStat analysis predominately correlates the production of statistics to police efficacy.
I have no doubts that the officer could effectively profile to result in charges, and that sometimes those charges were serious. But, the reservations he himself raised, that the majority of the charges he was filing were minor and insignificant, resonates with the research that indicates that when the police come into contact with members of the public, the experience often results in those individuals viewing the police negatively. When members of the public view the police negatively, they are less likely to cooperate with police.
Accordingly we see that the CompStat mantra, statistics indicate efficacy, fails to consider the very real possibility that a decrease in arrest and conviction statistics could also imply police efficacy. Let us take a utopic scenario where law enforcement is so effective, that any potential criminal actor understands that if s/he attempts any given crime s/he will be caught and punished. Since the perceived likelihood of capture correlates to deterrence of a banned action, we would predict that crime would be almost zero. Consequently, the police would not be able to generate CompStat statistics, unless new laws were passed that criminalized previously non-criminal activity. Nonetheless, we should not argue against the police's efficacy by claiming that no arrests means that they are not doing their job. Nor should we argue against their necessity and then, as many politicians invariably would, cut their funding.
This utopic example shows us that, in short, the number of inmates a society has is no indication of how much crime it has nor is it an indication of the efficacy of the policing system of that society. To use a sports analogy, police can be like the ball player who does the little things that do not show up on the stat sheet to help his or her team win. They may help boost character in society by building trust with the public (the clubhouse) or deter criminal acts by being efficient in responding to reported crimes (play stifling defense). Moreover, there is no need to alienate any member of your team, because you don’t know where s/he will play next, and s/he may very well come back to haunt you.
Nonetheless, the media and politicians often cast certain types of people, defined by their socio-economic, ethnic, or racial characteristics, and acts, defined as taboo, severe threats. The empirical data which provides adequate context to understand what the nature of the treat is proposed is often ignored or distorted. Given the public’s frequent reluctance to examine the big picture and think critically, in the US, policymakers are able to continue to justify legislation that allows some people rather than others to be profiled in the name of security. And, as Americans, by accepting such legislation and voting for those who pass and prolong it, we seem to support that idea. Therefore, in spite of what you may think of Sheriff Arpaio, he was doing the job expected of him.