Criminal profiling vs. racial profiling

Share via

I was accused of racial profiling on the first traffic stop I made as a rookie LAPD officer in 1998. I had spotted a reckless driver speeding through the streets of Van Nuys in a large pickup truck, so I flipped on my lights and took up the chase. The driver eventually pulled over, but as I walked up to his car, he began shouting at me, accusing me of having stopped him because he was black.

I could not sleep that night. A liberal academic before becoming a police officer, I had joined the Los Angeles Police Department hoping to make a difference. Yet here I was, on my first traffic stop, being accused of racism.

I thought of that incident again last week, when the LAPD was accused yet again of not adequately guarding against racial profiling by its officers. This time, it was the Department of Justice making the claim. As evidence, the agency cited a recording of two officers seemingly endorsing the practice in a conversation with a supervisor. One of the men said that he “couldn’t do [his] job without racially profiling.”


Racial profiling has consistently been one of the most confounding, divisive and controversial issues the police department confronts. A perception that police target members of specific ethnic or racial groups creates a deep divide between the police and the communities we serve. But as an officer who has spent a lot of time patrolling the city’s streets, I just don’t think the perception is accurate.

True racial profiling, in which people are targeted solely because of race or ethnicity, is both illegal and immoral. It destroys public trust and reduces the effectiveness of the police. There is no place for it in law enforcement. And I firmly believe that most LAPD officers support that viewpoint. Even the reported statement of the officer that he couldn’t do his job without racial profiling was most likely misinterpreted.

Consider the gang officers in Foothill Division, where I work. Each day, they go out in the field looking for Latino males of a certain age who dress in a particular way, have certain tattoos on their bodies and live in an area where street gangs flourish. Does that mean they are engaging in racial profiling? No. They are using crime data to identify possible suspects. Ethnicity is just one of many criteria they consider.

We have to acknowledge that there is a place for race and ethnicity in police work. If officers get information that a 6-foot-tall Asian man with a Fu Manchu mustache committed a robbery, they are of course going to target their search to tall Asian men with Fu Manchu mustaches. If the suspect is an 80-year-old white woman, the search won’t focus on young black men. Officers are trained to use all the data available to them in apprehending criminals. When officers follow leads and stop people, they do use profiling, but it is profiling based on all actionable intelligence, which includes race as one of many criteria. I suspect the officer whose comment was caught on tape was talking about this kind of criminal profiling.

I am not naive enough to believe that pure racial profiling has never happened. In a department as large as ours, there may be isolated officers who haven’t gotten the message. It’s true that no officer in the department has been found guilty of racial profiling, but that is a difficult charge to substantiate. But in my experience, Los Angeles police officers are much less likely than the general public to act on personal prejudices and biases. We work in an ethnically diverse department and in ethnically diverse communities, and officers who aren’t comfortable with that diversity aren’t going to make it in police work.

The LAPD has come a long way and has made concerted efforts to transform itself into a community-policing-based agency. But the perceptions of some Angelenos are still rooted in memories of a time when minority members were frequently abused and ill-treated by police officers.


For more than a decade, there has been a push to put video cameras in all patrol cars to record officer interactions with those they stop. There have been technical difficulties and problems with cost. But ultimately this is a crucial step to take to reduce community perceptions of racial profiling. We should also equip offices with personal video cams. Recording every police-citizen interaction would not only keep officers professional, it would greatly increase the conviction rate of criminals, reduce expenses of the criminal justice system and build trust in police-public relations.

The majority of hardworking and professional officers would benefit tremendously. All the false allegations made against them could be instantly dismissed, and complaint investigations would be much quicker and less costly. Additionally, the criminal justice system would save on investigative costs when a video recording demonstrated clearly that officers had a probable cause and obtained evidence properly. This could lead to more criminals pleading guilty, saving us long and costly court proceedings.

Many savvy officers have already started using cop-cams, purchasing them with their own funds. These officers realize the protection video recordings provide against false complaints. It is time for the department to institutionalize video recordings.

Sunil Dutta, an LAPD lieutenant, is a patrol watch commander at the Foothill Division. The opinions expressed are his own.