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Racial Profiling in the USA

Alexandra Menzel, Ruhr-Universität Bochum


Racial police violence has received increased media and political attention in the United States, most recently due to the death of the African American George Floyd and the subsequent protests against racism and police brutality under the slogan Black Lives Matter. Floyd died in May 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during a violent police arrest. An officer pressed his knee into the neck of the African American man lying on the ground for several minutes. In the wake of the debate about racial discrimination against African Americans as well as Hispanics by law enforcement and the justice system, for example by the fact that these groups of people are overrepresented in jails and are increasingly being victims of police stops and police violence (Johnson, 2016, pp.249-252), the police practice of racial profiling has also been discussed.


Profiling is a police strategy to identify criminals and prevent crimes, which is used not only in the United States but e.g., also in European countries. Profiling is based on the compilation, analysis and evaluation of specific data that enables establishing an offender profile. (Criminal) profiling relies on specific offender information, such as personal characteristics that can be derived from the crime scene, and is particularly helpful in investigating serial murders and rapes (Birzer, 2013, p.15). However, profiling is not only intended to arrest criminals but also to prevent crimes. The latter is referred to as predictive policing, whereby crime data are analyzed – increasingly by algorithm-based software – to predict where and by whom future crimes might be committed (CBS, 2020). An example of this strategy is the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) former LASER (Los Angeles Strategic Extraction and Restoration) program, which provided a list of information on suspected criminals based on putative risk factors such as gang affiliation, encounters with police, and criminal history (ibid.).

Racial Profiling

A particular form of profiling is called racial- or also ethnic profiling. This generally refers to the police inspections of people (solely) based on their appearance – for example, skin color – rather than on the basis of reasonable suspicions – such as illegal behavior (Thompson, 2020). Racial profiling is based on the assumption that a person’s appearance as well as language and name allow conclusions to be drawn about one’s membership in a particular population group and thus about criminal intent. In contrast to criminal profiling, where skin color is only one of several elements of the profile along with, for example, behavioral traits and character traits, in racial profiling skin color is decisive in determining whether or not a person is suspected and thus controlled (Birzer, 2013, pp.13-15). Hence, if a person driving a car is stopped by the police because they have a certain skin color and not because they have committed a serious traffic violation, this is racial profiling (ibid., p.13). Racial profiling is used by law enforcement officers – police officers and other security, immigration, and customs officers – in the context of passersby or traffic stops, among other things (Thompson, 2020). Those most affected by racial profiling are African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, Arab Americans, American Muslims, and Native Americans (Amnesty International, 2004, pp.1-2). These populations will be distinguished from the white U.S. population in the following. White does not refer to actual skin color but instead to persons who are not racially discriminated against and are not affected by racial profiling. Racial profiling involves the use of psychological violence in the form of insults, humiliation, intimidation, and threats, or physical violence in the form of kicks, punches, or the use of firearms. Racial profiling represents a form of collective violence, as this practice involves individuals who see themselves as members of different groups or are attributed to different parties. The use of violence is aimed at identifying and arresting criminals. Racial profiling is also a racially motivated and institutionalized form of violence.

Racial profiling is a particular police method that is widely used in U.S. law enforcement. Racial profiling represents a routine, supra-individual course of action that serves as an orientation aid for police officers in recognition of – alleged – criminals and is oriented towards schemes, whereby the concrete exercise can vary individually. Based on these characteristics, racial profiling can be understood as a practice.


U.S. law enforcement agencies have a wide range of equipment at their disposal. How individual officers are equipped depends on their rank, duties, and area of assignment, among other factors. For example, patrol officers are equipped with fewer accessories than special units such as the SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) team. Patrol officers wear a mostly dark-colored uniform – black or blue – with a name tag and badge attached. Other equipment, which is attached to the uniform belt with pouches or holsters, includes a portable radio or pager, which is used to communicate with colleagues, a flashlight, which is used primarily during nighttime traffic and pedestrian controls, a folding baton, a stun gun – Taser -, irritant gas – also known as pepper spray or tear gas – and silver-colored metal handcuffs or plastic handcuffs – flex cuffs – as well as a semi-automatic handgun – usually a Glock – with appropriate spare ammunition (Los Angeles Police Foundation and LAPD, 2021; Seattle Police Department, 2019).

Furthermore, police officers may also wear a – bulletproof – vest that covers the upper body and can be worn either over or under the uniform and carry a body camera – bodycam – that records encounter with suspicious persons. In addition, gloves, log sheets that record stops and arrests, breathalyzers, and first aid kits may be part of the police kit. Particularly relevant to the practice of racial profiling are handcuffs, guns, batons, tasers, and pepper spray, which can be used, among other things, to arrest suspects, but also bodycams and arrest logs, which can be used to reconstruct police stops and identify racial profiling. They are artifacts because they represent essential components of the practice and make it partially observable.

Prevalence and Origin of Racial Profiling

Racial profiling is a commonplace phenomenon in the United States. According to a 2004 report by Amnesty International, approximately 32 million Americans have been racially profiled and approximately 87 million are at high risk of becoming victims of this police practice (Amnesty International, 2004, p.VI). However, perceptions about how widespread racial profiling is and whether its use is legitimate are sometimes controversial and vary between genders and different population groups. For example, studies show that African Americans and Latinos/as are more likely to believe that racial profiling occurs regularly in the United States than whites (Higgins and Gabbidon, 2012, p.73). Additionally, they find that African American and Latino populations and women are more critical of racial profiling than whites and men (ibid., p.74). Alegria’s (2012, p.257) focus group study also shows that whites do not deny the occurrence of racial profiling but downplay and defend it to some extent. For example, white participants doubt the widespread prevalence of the practice and accuse the media of inflating the phenomenon (ibid., p.251).

Moreover, they see racial profiling as an individual rather than a structural problem limited to individual racist police officers and attribute higher crime rates to African Americans and Latin Americans, justifying the targeting of these populations for police stops (ibid., pp.251-252). Support for racial profiling also depends on how the practice is evaluated. For example, Higgins and Gabbidon (2012, pp.79-80) find that support for and belief in the existence of racial profiling decreases when it is deemed unethical, discriminatory, and ineffective. Overall, the authors show that most respondents believe in and reject the occurrence of racial profiling during traffic stops as a method of identifying criminal activity and consider the practice unethical, discriminatory, and ineffective (ibid., pp.77-78).

It is not possible to say precisely since when racial profiling has been practiced. Precursors of the practice can be found, for example, in connection with the colonization of North America and slavery in the USA in the 17th/18th century (Amnesty International, 2004, pp.2-3). The first evidence of racial profiling in modern law enforcement can be found in Cincinnati in the mid-20th century (Jones, 2017, p.24). A cornerstone for the use of racial profiling was laid by the United States Supreme Court (Supreme Court) in Whren v. United States (1996), in which it ruled that racial profiling is permitted in the context of traffic stops when reasonable suspicion exists (Luzinski and Mequon, 2005). An example of racial profiling is the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) Stop and Frisk program, which has been in place since 2002 (, 2016) and allows people to be stopped, questioned, and searched without specific suspicion of a crime (Fritz, 2017). The program aims to reduce crime in the long term by preventing more significant crimes by aggressively targeting minor offenses – Broken Windows Theory (Newberry, 2017, pp.3-4). A significant majority of those stopped are of the African American or Latino population (Fritz, 2017). In addition, there are more cases on average in areas where African Americans and Latinos make up the majority of the resident population than in areas with predominantly white populations (ACLU, 2020). About ten percent of those screened are arrested, with drug possession being the most common reason for arrest (Fritz, 2017). The program was declared unconstitutional by a federal court in August 2013 because it violated the 4th and 14th Amendments, which guarantee protection against unjustified searches and seizures and equality before the law (, 2016; Newberry, 2017, p.1). In particular, the court criticized the disproportionate use of the method on specific population groups (, 2016). However, the general practice of stop and frisk was not deemed unconstitutional, only the way the NYPD carried it out, which is why the program was not abolished but only supplemented with additional measures to ensure the accountability of the police officers involved (Newberry, 2017, pp.2-3). Since the ruling, however, the acceptance and use of the practice have declined significantly (Fritz, 2017;, 2016).

Racial profiling and its causes are discussed in academia in terms of critical race theory (Jones, 2017) and the aforementioned broken windows theory (Newberry, 2017), among others, as well as concerning conflict theory and minority threat theory (ibid., pp. 40-41). In addition, the research addresses the influence of stereotypes on this practice (Glaser, 2015). For example, Glaser (ibid.) defines racial profiling as stereotype-based policing. The decision to stop-and thus the suspicion of a crime is based on ideas about certain populations and their characteristics-such as that African Americans and Latinos are violent and criminals. According to Glaser (ibid.), such implicit racial biases lead, for example, to the so-called shooter bias, i.e., the tendency of police officers to shoot African-American persons sooner and faster than white persons, regardless of whether they are armed or not.


Racial profiling, as mentioned earlier, affects different populations, for example, African Americans and Latin Americans, and occurs in different contexts, such as driving, shopping and traveling, or at work (ACLU and RWG, 2009, p.12). Racial profiling is used as a basis for employment, residence, and immigration status checks, border and immigration controls, and traffic and people controls. Depending on the context, there are different terms for that, such as ‘Driving While Black or Brown’, ‘Walking While Black or Brown’ and ‘Flying While Arab’ (Amnesty International, 2004, p.VII).

‘Driving While Black or Brown’

Profiling is used mainly in the so-called war on drugs. The first drug courier profiles were developed in the mid-1970s by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). They included information on skin color, age, gender, clothing style, and vehicle type, among other behavioral characteristics (Glaser, 2015). Drug courier profiles are still used today as a basis for traffic stops, among other things. Most racial profiling research relies on Traffic Stop Data. These provide information on the skin color, age and gender of the persons stopped and the reason, location and result of the stop. However, the reliability and completeness of traffic stop data are always questionable (Birzer, 2013, p.57). For instance, they do not provide information about the proportion of the people stopped compared to the total driving population. In addition, traffic stop data do not contain information about the drivers who are not stopped and the thought processes that police officers go through when deciding whether or not to conduct a stop (Gumbhir, 2007, p.216). For example, these problems can be solved by observing traffic stops or interviewing police officers (ibid., p.226) and comparing them with census or traffic data (Birzer, 2013, pp.59-64). Thus, data from traffic stops provide evidence of racial profiling but do not prove it. Previous study findings on traffic stops show that African American and Latino motorists are disproportionately stopped by police and significantly more likely to be searched as part of a traffic stop than whites. However, the hit rate, for example, for a drug find, is nevertheless no higher for these populations than for white motorists (Williams and Stahl, 2008, p.224). Thus, skin color is not an indicator of successful traffic stops, which explains why racial profiling does not appear to be an effective or efficient method of crime control (ibid., p.223). There are different terms for racial profiling in the context of traffic stops, depending on which population group the stopped drivers belong to. If Asian Americans are involved, the corresponding phenomenon is called ‘Driving While Asian.’ In contrast, for African American drivers it is called ‘Driving While Black’ and for Latinos/as it is called ‘Driving While Brown’ or ‘Driving While Mexican’, with the form ‘Driving While Black or Brown’ being the most common and frequent (Onwudiwe, 2005, p.6).

Racial profiling-based traffic stops follow a specific pattern and consist roughly of five steps: (1) observe, (2) stop, (3) question, (4) search, (5) proceed. During traffic stops, the police pick out vehicles whose drivers are recognizably members of a particular population group. When they see a suitable car, they often follow or observe it for a while before they then stop it. The police often do not state the reason for the check. However, when given reasons, they talk about minor traffic violations such as running a stop sign, speeding, or defective taillights. The motorist is questioned after the vehicle is stopped. First, the police ask the motorist to hand over his driver’s license and vehicle registration papers to check for validity. After that, they often want to know where the motorist is from, where he is headed, and whether he belongs to a gang. Often the same questions are repeated several times.

Furthermore, the police officers usually ask if there are drugs or weapons in the car and ask for permission to search the vehicle (Birzer, 2013). If they agree voluntarily, which is usually the case, all occupants must get out, and the vehicle is searched for suspicious objects or substances. In some cases, the occupants of the car also get scanned. After the vehicle is checked, which is usually inconclusive, the motorist can continue driving – generally without a ticket or warning. The check sometimes takes between 30 and 45 minutes for African-American and Latino drivers, usually longer than for white drivers (ibid.).

The people often describe the police officers stopped as rude, disrespectful, condescending and aggressive. In addition, they are reported to be biased and do not listen properly or do not let the drivers finish talking. As a result, the people stopped feel mistreated and like criminals (ibid., pp.113-116).

When deciding which car to stop, there is often a link between the skin color of the motorists as well as the vehicle model and the location of the stop (ibid., p.144). For example, in his qualitative study, Birzer (ibid., p.106) notes that several of the primarily African American and Latino respondents were driving a lowrider when police stopped them. A lowrider is a lowered car with an eye-catching custom paint job, most often equipped with a hydraulic system that allows the vehicle to be raised and lowered with the push of a button (ibid., p.158). Furthermore, African Americans and Latin Americans were also checked if they drove a vehicle with tinted windows, an expensive car model, such as a BMW or Lexus, or a so-called hooptie (ibid., pp.158-159). A hooptie is typically a large car from the 1970s or 1980s, such as a Buick Electra, Chevrolet Impala, or Chrysler New Yorker (ibid., p.158). It is bought cheaply in poor condition and then tuned by, for example, repainting it and equipping it with large and flashy chrome rims, rotating hubcaps, tinted windows, and prominent stereo system speakers (ibid.). Birzer (ibid., pp.118-119) also found that African-Americans are controlled primarily in affluent white neighborhoods or socially disadvantaged neighborhoods with high crime rates.

‘Walking While Black or Brown’

Racial profiling is also common in the context of pedestrian checks on the street. It similarly affects persons of the African-American and Latino population predominantly. The corresponding phenomenon is called ‘Walking While Black or Brown’. The control follows the described pattern as well: observe, stop, question, search. Suspects are stopped by the police and usually asked to identify themselves, questioned about drugs and weapons possession, and searched. Suspects are required to stand facing a wall, for example, with their arms extended above their heads and standing wide-legged so that they assume to take in an X position (Juarez, 2004, p.50). Then they are scanned superficially – for drugs and weapons. During the search, physical force is used sometimes, e.g., by the police officers pressing the suspects firmly against the wall or on the floor and pressing with their knees on the ground (Amnesty International, 2004, p.7). They are allowed to continue without legal consequences, if the check is unsuccessful.

‘Flying While Arab’

Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 – commonly known as 9/11 – and the ensuing so-called war on terror, Arabs, Muslims and people from the Middle East have increasingly been affected by racial profiling Among other things, the U.S. Patriot Act allows U.S. law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, to wiretap and question individuals and search their homes in order to detect and prevent terrorist activities (Onwudiwe, 2005, pp.9-10). As a result, the groups mentioned above are visited and interrogated at their workplaces, universities, homes, or outside their mosques, among other places (ACLU and RWG, 2009, p.31). In addition, they are subject to increased screening when they enter the United States, particularly at airports. Before boarding, they are often intensively screened and questioned, and in some cases, prevented from taking off (Glaser, 2015). In the U.S. space, the phenomenon is referred to as ‘Flying While Arab’. ACLU and RWG (2009, pp.34-35) report that Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians are asked about their family and friends as well as their faith and political views during the checks – for example, by CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) officers – and their papers, cell phones, and laptops are checked and sometimes confiscated. In particular, people who wear religious head coverings – such as a turban or headscarf – are chosen for checks, including a thorough scan and the removal of head coverings to determine whether anything is hidden underneath (ibid., pp.36-37). The problem with these kinds of racial profiling is that potential criminals, in this case, terrorists, who do not fit the profile, such as white U.S. citizens of Christian faith, are not recognized as a potential threat (Glaser, 2015).

Racial Profiling in the Context of U.S. Immigration Policy.

Since former U.S. President Donald Trump’s stricter immigration policies, racial profiling has increasingly found its application in the context of consistent enforcement of federal immigration laws. The practice is used in this context by law enforcement and immigration authorities to identify individuals in the U.S. without valid documentation-that is, without a temporary or permanent residence permit, such as a tourist visa, work visa, or green card-with the overall goal of deporting these individuals. This primarily affects Latinos/as, who are questioned about their identification and immigration status during police checks (Amnesty International, 2012, p.11). These checks are carried out in particular on the southwestern U.S. border to Mexico – in Texas and Arizona – by federal authorities such as ICE (United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and local police authorities (ibid.).

Video example

In August 2018, the New York Post published a nearly two-and-a-half-minute video on its YouTube channel that shows a bodycam-recorded conversation between a white police officer and an African American motorist in the state of Iowa (New York Post, 2018).

At the beginning of the recording, a white police officer can be seen walking toward the driver’s side of a white four-door car with two African Americans inside. He shines a black flashlight into the vehicle and begins a conversation with the driver. First, he asks what is wrong, to which the driver replies, “Not much.” The policeman then asks the driver if he owns the car. The driver denies this and answers that it is borrowed and that his vehicle is in the workshop. The policeman then asks whether the driver and passenger come from the park, to which the former confirms. Then he asks again whether the car belongs to the driver. After that, the latter repeats his answer. The policeman then asks the driver how to start the car and whether he has a key fob for the car. The driver explains to the police officer how to start the car and then shows and gives him the key fob. In the further course of the conversation, the police officer asks the driver about weapons and drugs and notes that there is a smell of marijuana in the vehicle and that he can also see some on the floor inside the car. In addition, he tells the driver that he feels that the passenger – who is also African-American – may have a weapon on him and that he and his colleague are nervous because of the behavior of the driver and passenger. The driver denies and states that there are no weapons or drugs in the car. The policeman then asks the driver to get out of the car, followed by the driver asking why. The policeman says that he has already given it to him three times and asks if he should repeat it. The driver raises his hands, after which the policeman asks him to get out again. The driver points out that he has given the policeman his I.D. and that he should check it, but the policeman refuses because he does not want to move away from the car. He tells the driver to listen if he does not want to go to jail and emphasizes that he is a police officer. The driver then gets out of the car and the policeman handcuffs him. The driver is then questioned further in the police car and asked again about possible marijuana residues in the car. However, he clarifies that he does not have any drugs with him and that it is  cigarette ash. At the end of the video, the driver and passenger getting into their car and saying goodbye to the police officer and his colleague – who are not visible on the bodycam recording, but their voice is audible. In addition, it is shown that neither drugs nor weapons were found in the vehicle and that the driver was allowed to drive on without a subpoena. At the same time, the police officers are being investigated for their behavior during the check.

Whether or not a police-stop can be considered as racial profiling is not always easy to define. In the example presented, however, several points indicate that it can be. For example, the traffic stop follows the pattern of stop, question, search and proceed, which is typical for racial profiling in ‘Driving While Black’. First, the car is stopped, then the driver is questioned by the police officer – first in his own and later still in the police car – after which the car is searched for drugs and weapons – based on the police officer’s assumption – and then the driver is allowed to continue driving – without legal consequences – because the search remained unsuccessful. The check cannot be determined with certainty through the bodycam video, as the police officer does not directly mention it. However, it does not seem to have been carried out based on a sufficient suspicion of a crime. Thus, the police officer suspects the driver of hiding drugs and weapons in his vehicle, although there is no concrete evidence for this and after a close inspection of the car, neither drugs nor weapons could be found. While the driver behaves politely and cooperatively – he repeatedly addresses the police officer as “sir” and “officer” and answers all the questions – and shows no signs of criminal behavior, the police officer appears uncertain and dissatisfied with the answers and becomes entangled in contradictions. He does not give a specific reason for the traffic stop or his suspicion that there are drugs and weapons in the vehicle. Thus, the police officer does not appear to have stopped the driver because he had committed a traffic violation, had a warrant, or had any other substantiated police information linking him to crime, but because of his skin color and the related assumption that it is an indicator of criminal activity. The basis for the stop could not have been suspected of drug and weapons possession, as this cannot arise from merely watching a car. Instead, the video suggests that the police officer suspected that drugs and weapons could be found in the car because of the driver’s skin color and his affiliation with the African American population. This would match the definition of racial profiling mentioned at the beginning of this article.

The Role of Racial Profiling in Police Practice

Although racial profiling is rejected by most U.S. citizens and is officially banned in many states and police departments, it is still used by police and sometimes not acknowledged as a problem by police officers. Williams and Stahl (2008, p.221) use focus group interviews to examine police officers’ perceptions of traffic stops and racial profiling and find that they regard themselves as solvers of problems in their community rather than as profilers of people. The majority-white respondents identify drugs and drunk driving as problems specific to the African American and Hispanic populations, and the implementation of traffic stops as an effective strategy to address them (ibid., p.236). A different perspective is provided by Wilson et al.’s (2015) study of perceptions of racial profiling from the perspective of African American police officers. The majority of respondents indicated that the practice occurs in their precincts and is tolerated (ibid., p.491). The study results show that views of racial profiling may vary among police officers and confirm that the practice is carried out during stops. Racial profiling in police work is also addressed by former Chicago police officer and drug investigator Juan Antonio Juarez in his autobiography. There, he describes in detail the everyday life of the police, which is characterized by abuse of power, racism, violence – especially against Afro-Americans and Latin Americans -, drugs and corruption (Juarez, 2004). Juarez (ibid., p.36) points out that what is taught at the police academy differs significantly from the actual everyday work. For example, he describes several incidents of police misconduct and (fatal) police violence against African-American and Latino persons. Although they contradicted the guidelines, they usually did not have severe consequences for the police officers involved. In his view, this is primarily due to the unwritten code of silence within the police force, which means that unprofessional and unethical behavior often goes unreported and is thus tolerated (ibid., p.140).

Juarez also describes several racial profiling cases, both from the police perspective and from the perspective of the citizens involved. Juarez, who has Mexican roots, was stopped as a private person during traffic controls. In one case, the police officers were aggressive and unfriendly and at first, did not want to give the reason for the stop (ibid., p.141). Later, however, one of them admitted that Juarez’s vehicle looked like a drug dealer’s car (ibid., p.142). In the other case, he had been verbally and physically assaulted by the police (ibid., p.255). The two police officers involved were unfriendly, insulted him and did not let him finish (ibid., pp.253-254). His vehicle was searched without his consent and he was handcuffed and put into the police vehicle (ibid.). After the police officer’s search turned out unsuccessful and then realised that they suspected a police officer, they were embarrassed and apologized (ibid., p.255). In a second case, Juarez was a police officer during pedestrian and traffic stops based on racial profiling. He observed police officers stopping and insulting Afro-Americans and Latin Americans during traffic or pedestrian controls without sufficient suspicion, searching their vehicles, using excessive force, and in some cases even demolishing their cars. However, this had hardly any consequences for the police officers involved since the misconduct was either not reported or justified afterward, for example by noting in the report that the suspects had behaved uncooperatively (ibid., p.145).

Juarez’s monograph shows that although the use of racial profiling is officially prohibited, it is rarely sanctioned and is largely tolerated. Racial profiling can thus be informally learned and passed on – from police officer to police officer. Juarez (ibid., p.37) writes that younger police officers usually learn from their older and more experienced colleagues, especially their partners, in the field and partly adopt their crime-fighting methods.

Learning about racial profiling

The question of exactly how police officers learn racial profiling are investigated by Luzinski and Mequon (2005) in their interview study. In their study, they make a connection between racial profiling, police training, and social learning. In their opinion, learning racial profiling occurs in three stages, which they label (1) Whiteness, (2) Blueness, and (3) Copness. In the first stage, before police training, future police officers adopt racist attitudes from their parents and friends. They learn to distinguish between different population groups and to consider people who do not belong to the white U.S. population as abnormal. They would be taught to avoid contact with these people and distance themselves from them physically and emotionally, for example, by staying away from areas with a high African American population (ibid.). The later police officers would thus primarily live in so-called tiny white bubbles (ibid.). The racist attitudes acquired through personal experiences and adopted by caregivers would be taken by the future police officers into the police service. In the second stage of the learning process, police officers would deepen their racist prejudices during police work. Through conversations with fellow officers, they would learn to view non-white U.S. groups not only as abnormal but also as inherently wrong – amoral, disreputable, and dishonorable (ibid.). For example, a police officer interviewed by Luzinski and Mequon (ibid.) said that African Americans would aim to drink alcohol, use drugs, and father children with different women. In the final step of the learning process, police officers would be trained and socially reinforced by their peers and mostly older instructors. These populations are prone to criminal acts due to their inherently wrong character and need to be policed more (ibid.). This becomes clear in statements made by the police officers interviewed by Luzinski and Mequon.

For example, one police officer says that if he sees an African American in a wealthy neighborhood where, in his experience, only whites live, he has to stop him. Moreover, another interviewee says that he stops African Americans who drive expensive cars because they can only afford them through criminal activity such as theft. Thus, in addition to Birzer’s (2013) study, Luzinski and Mequon (2005) also find evidence linking skin color, vehicle type, and location in the decision to conduct a police-stop. According to Luzinski and Mequin, police officers are also trained to achieve the highest possible level of police activity – many stops with a positive outcome (distribution of a traffic ticket or arrest) – which is achieved by targeting African Americans, for example, as they tend to be more likely to commit crimes than whites. Further, police officers would learn what they can do both in and out of the legal setting when conducting stops. Through training, they would have the legal and technical skills to construct a criminal case out of minor infractions by specific populations, and know how to justify inappropriate behavior-for example, toward an African American during a traffic stop after the fact so that they cannot be prosecuted for it (ibid.). According to Luzinski and Mequon, police officers are thus encouraged to practice racial profiling through social learning.

Consequences of Racial Profiling

Racial profiling has adverse effects on the relationship between the police and the population groups affected by discrimination. In particular, trust in and cooperation with police officers deteriorates due to the practice (Glaser, 2015). For example, African Americans view police less positively than whites and are more distrustful (Birzer, 2013, p.7). Groups affected by racial profiling take specific measures to avoid and prepare for this practice. For example, they avoid specific neighborhoods or car models to avoid inspections (ibid., p.146). In addition, concerned parents instruct their children to stay away from the police and not give them any reason to question or check them (ibid., p.163). African American parents, for example, have conversations with their children – who are about eight years old – about how to behave during police stops so that they do not end in (deadly) violence (Peltner, 2018). Birzer (2013, pp.190-193) advises – non-white U.S. population members – to cooperate and remain calm during stops, not to argue, not to make sudden or frantic movements, to wait for instructions from police officers and to put their hands on the steering wheel. For victims, racial profiling often has a lasting impact. The consequences of this practice range from public humiliation to – sometimes long-lasting – physical and psychological injuries (Thompson, 2020). In his study, Birzer (2013, p.98) reports feelings of shame, frustration, anger, and helplessness, increased vigilance and fear at the sight of police, and the expectation of being stopped again. Selective policing of certain populations can also reinforce racial stereotypes-such as the criminal African American-in society (Thompson, 2020).

Measures against Racial Profiling

Racial profiling has been seen as an institutional problem in the United States that needs to be addressed since as early as the 1990s (, 2016). In 2001, for example, then U.S. President George W. Bush said that this practice was wrong and needed to be ended (ibid.). In the meantime, several programs (should) restrict, prohibit, and counteract racial profiling in the USA. The majority of U.S. states have introduced measures against this practice, such as a form requirement for identity checks (ibid.). In New York, for example, police officers must record not only personal data but also the possible migration background and skin color of the person stopped and the reason for the stop, the course of the stop, and the result of the stop (ibid.).

On the one hand, the obligation to fill out forms is intended to encourage police officers to consider their behavior during stops and thus raise awareness of racial profiling, and on the other hand, the protocols are to be used as a data basis for research and as a basis for the development of measures to combat the practice (ibid.). In addition, for federal law enforcement, the Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies was adopted to prohibit the use of racial profiling by federal law enforcement, but allows exceptions, for example, for national security and border security cases, does not include religious and gender profiling, and is also not legally binding (ACLU and RWG, 2009, pp.13-14). ACLU and RWG (ibid., p.14) recommend the passage of legislation, such as the End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA), which would require all law enforcement agencies to prohibit racial profiling and to record gender and skin color in police activities such as stops, searches, and arrests, as well as create a private right of action for victims. Amnesty International (2004, pp.37-38) suggests racial profiling-sensitive training for police officers, establishing an independent agency to monitor law enforcement and its methods, and collecting data on racial profiling. In addition, the human rights organization recommends supporting initiatives that work against racial profiling and advocates for the consistent prosecution and punishment of this practice (ibid., p.36). Jones (2017, p.99) further suggests the diversification of the police force, i.e., the increased recruitment of, for example, African Americans and Latinos/as, to improve the police force’s connection to the population. Birzer (2013) also identifies several implications for political and policing practice. Like Amnesty International (2004), he recommends police training that is sensitive to racial profiling, which trains police officers to behave appropriately and professionally during controls, and that educates them about racism, stereotypes, and consequences (Birzer, 2013, pp.169-173). In addition, he advises close cooperation and open and regular exchange between the police and the population to improve their relationship and reduce prejudice (ibid., pp.176-178). Glaser (2015) advocates replacing intuitive and informal racial profiling with formal profiling based on empirical facts that are not fundamentally based on external characteristics such as skin color.

Alexandra Menzel studies in the master program Social Science (Culture & Person) at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum (April 2021)


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