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Sometimes Cops Profile by Race; So What?

Sunil Dutta is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department's Valley Traffic Division

Come Thursday, I will indulge in racial profiling. Every time I stop a motorist for a traffic violation or detain someone, I will file a card in which I’m asked to guess the person’s race.

If I’m working in the west end of LAPD’s West Valley Division, my cards will indicate that I stopped mostly white people. If I write my citations in Van Nuys Division, my contacts will be almost all Latino. Officers working in Southeast Division will be stopping mostly blacks; cops writing tickets in mid-Wilshire will have cards showing a preponderance of Koreans.

The people who made this procedure a part of the consent decree signed by the Los Angeles Police Department and the U.S. Department of Justice somehow believe that if I or other cops indulge in racial profiling, that fact will emerge after they analyze this data.

I did enough scientific research and data analysis in my previous career as a scientist to know that the whole exercise is a waste of officers’ time and the city’s money. We can neither prove nor prevent racial profiling by playing the numbers game. It is a fact that we all indulge in some profiling. The question is whether it leads to unwarranted behavior.

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I have seen racial profiling from various angles. I received dirty looks and snide comments during the Gulf War because some mistook me for an Arab. I was pulled out of more than 300 passengers on an airliner for a search and rude questioning, without probable cause. Since Sept. 11, people have stared at me as if I were an Islamic terrorist and have questioned my patriotism, even though I am neither Arab nor Muslim.

I also have seen how law enforcement uses the “common characteristics” of criminals in investigations. Abuses of authority by police, for example, have perpetuated the stereotypes of white cops on a hunt for innocent young black men. There is no doubt that some officers get away with a lot. New Jersey state troopers, for example, were found to have used racial profiling over a number of years. So minorities do have legitimate concerns about police tactics.

However, the Band-Aid solutions suggested by politicians, such as gathering statistics and creating laws to ban profiling, make a mockery of true reforms and are counterproductive. What we need to tackle is the ignorance and prejudice within all of society, the root cause of the problem.

The sad events after Sept. 11 have demonstrated our prejudices. People of all races are indulging in racial profiling against those who look Middle Eastern. Often, these are the same people who criticize cops for indulging in profiling.

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No one is born prejudiced against skin color and religions. The human mind likes to simplify complexities to make associations with what is known and not known. Cops profile based on their knowledge and experiences with other criminals and crime trends. If I tell my friends that most of the people on skid row are substance abusers, I am not making an insensitive remark. It is based on facts and some inductive reasoning.

Unfortunately, inductive reasoning without knowledge or combined with prejudice can cause racist attitudes and lead to violations of civil rights. Those cops who indulge in prejudice-based profiling destroy the community trust and alienate the public.

Similarly, when we all indulge in racial profiling we create a divisive environment and perpetuate negative stereotypes. We end up forcing people into boxes: young black males in dreadlocks hanging around in groups are criminals; Latino men with shaved heads and tattooed body parts are gang members; Middle Eastern Muslims are terrorists, and so on.

It is important to expand our horizons by learning about others and fighting the ignorance that makes us close-minded. Only through such an approach, and not by playing a shortsighted numbers game, can we hope for an end to racial profiling.

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