Profiling is a controversial topic — I barely need to say that, really. Among the general public, there are those who feel that they have nothing to hide (though, let’s be honest, those tend to be those who don’t usually “fit the profile”), and those who feel over-burdened by profiled stops. There’s the common sarcastic comment that someone was “pulled over for Driving While Black.”
Even among the police, there are two sides. Stick a “profiler” into a kidnapping investigation, and you’ll see plenty of animosity, as the “real investigators” just want to do their jobs, while the profiler is giving them sometimes-vague, wispy ideas about the kidnapper. His parents are probably divorced. Probably. He doesn’t like his mother. Where’s that going to lead the investigation?
Yet we rely on some sorts of profiles to narrow our searches, to give us a better chance of finding the wrongdoers. Obviously, when we have a specific description for a specific crime, it makes the job possible, especially in a city of 8 million residents. We know the guy who snatched the purse was a young white man with blonde hair, about five-foot-eight, 160 pounds, wearing a denim jacket. There’s a physical profile. There’s no point in stopping black men or Latinos, nor tall white men, nor bald white men (he could have shaved his head after the robbery, of course, but...).
But that profile is sufficient narrow and sufficiently focused on the crime at hand to be useful. What if we just generally thought that purse snatchers are most often young white blonde men, and we just started shaking down every white guy under 25 with blonde hair? Would that be acceptable, do you think?
And so we have New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy, which results in a huge number of blacks being stopped, and a pretty heft number of Latinos as well. Very few of these stops result in arrests, and the police department’s own statistics say that, apart from that, very few really had much cause to be stopped. It’s just that the officers involved felt that they had a plausible reason to stop them.
The fact is, of course, that a police officer can always claim a plausible reason to stop you. You were, he need only say, “acting suspiciously,” such a vague observation that it can’t possibly be contested. Maybe you were looking around furtively — or maybe you weren’t sure which way you needed to go, or maybe the officer just needed something to say.
The fourth amendment to the U.S. Constitution is meant to protect us from “unreasonable searches and seizures”:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
The trouble is that if the police needed to get a warrant to stop a criminal on the street, every street thug would get away. So the courts have adjusted things, allowing an officer of the law to assess probable cause personally, in minute-to-minute situations, where warrants are impractical. Like when they’re chasing a purse snatcher, or a suspected one.
And, of course, as happens with these sorts of things, that allowance for judgment is being abused. Most disturbing, though, is that it’s not just being abused by officers on the street, but it’s being abused by department policy sent down from the top levels of the city’s government.
New York City’s streets are not being made safer by these shakedowns, nor by the subsequent privacy disaster of keeping permanent records of everyone they’ve stopped. What’s more, the practice is eroding what connections have been established between the police and the communities. This policy has police officers performing unreasonable searches, in violation of the fourth amendment. It needs to be shut down.