Profiling the police

Merrick J. Bobb is executive director of the nonprofit Police Assessment Resource Center and special counsel monitoring the Sheriff's Department for the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

The Los Angeles Police Department closed 320 racial profiling investigations in 2007 without finding merit in a single complaint, The Times reported this week. Should we conclude that the LAPD is incapable of seeing racial profiling? No. Should we conclude that racial profiling by the police does not exist? Absolutely not. Should we conclude that it is extremely difficult to combat racial profiling on a case-by-case basis? Yes. Are there better ways of dealing with racial profiling than case-by-case adjudication? Clearly so.

Police Chief William J. Bratton is correct in saying that it is difficult, if not impossible, to probe the mind of an individual officer to determine if a decision to stop a car was based solely (or even predominantly) on the race or ethnicity of the driver. The current leadership in the LAPD’s Internal Affairs Group is intelligent and ethical. A failure to find the requisite racially motivated intent on the part of a given officer reflects more the impossibly high burden of proof than the integrity and competence of this unit.

The absence of sustained complaints does not mean, however, that racial profiling is a phantasm conjured by overly suspicious minds. It exists. It has been shown in city after city -- including Los Angeles -- that the burden of pedestrian and traffic stops falls significantly more heavily on racial and ethnic minorities than on whites. Of those stopped, a significantly higher percentage of African Americans and Latinos are searched. The criminal justice system in all its aspects weighs more heavily on these groups than on whites.


Such patterns demand a response. Yet some proposed solutions are overly restrictive, such as a total ban on “pretext” stops. Some advocates argue that if an officer stops a car for a broken taillight, then the cop should only write a ticket and go on his way without seeking consent to search or having the driver and passengers exit the vehicle. A broad and inflexible rule like this may overly compromise crime-fighting efforts. So too with proposals requiring people to give written consent for themselves or their vehicles to be searched each time an officer seeks to do so. A better rule would require officers to affirmatively inform people that they are not required to consent to a search.

Instead of blanket rules and addressing profiling on a case-by-case basis, the LAPD needs to look at the big picture. The goal must be to snare an officer who, when compared with peers on the same shift in the same neighborhood, stops disproportionately more blacks and Latinos. To catch that officer, it is necessary to look at trends over time. Although an officer plausibly can deny a racial motivation in a single case, it is a tougher job to deny a pattern of disproportionate stops and searches or more citizen complaints than fellow officers.

For that reason, police departments should collect racial profiling data on an officer-by-officer basis, including the time, place and duration of all stops; demographic details on the driver and passengers; and whether the stop ended in a search, arrest and conviction. The police should track the outcomes of each officer’s searches to test the percentage that yield contraband and to break them down by race and ethnicity of the people searched. A greater proportion of searches yielding contraband likely indicates greater precision and a higher degree of reasonable suspicion by the officer. A low “hit rate” may be a sign of searches that are indiscriminate fishing expeditions. When those proportions differ by race and ethnicity, it may be an indicator of race-based policing.

The fact that no citizen’s complaint of racial profiling was sustained against the LAPD in 2007, while at first blush troubling, does not indicate that the department is blind to the problem or lacks integrity. Rather, it demonstrates that proving it case by case is nearly impossible. A far better way to find racial profiling that surely exists is to look at trends, patterns and comparisons of the track records of similarly situated officers.