July 30th, 2009
11:21 AM ET

The decline of racial profiling

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/07/28/art.cro.oba.gat.jpg caption="President Obama, Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates will meet this evening at the White House."]

Greg Ridgeway and Nelson Lim
RAND Corporation

President Obama called the arrest of his friend Professor Henry Gates a “teachable moment.” This is a moment to learn the facts of race and policing these days. The president put it this way: “There is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.”

Racial profiling has indeed been an ugly reality for many years. But our research in several large cities finds little evidence that it continues to be a major problem.

Police departments have made tremendous progress in both policy and practice of racial profiling. Numerous states and departments have banned it, and racial profiling prevention training is commonplace. Sgt. James Crowley, the officer who arrested Gates, has taught such a class at the local police academy for five years.

It’s true that minorities continue to be stopped disproportionately to their representation in the population. But this information says nothing about whether police are racial profiling.  A key reason for this disparity is exposure to police.

Police regularly allocate their officers based on a neighborhood’s 911 call volume. Disproportionate numbers of African Americans and Latinos live in highly segregated areas with high crime rates. As a result, they have much greater exposure to police officers than whites who live in other parts of the city. Furthermore, even though drug use is nearly equal across races, research indicates that black drug users and sellers are likelier to be involved in frequent, public drug transactions that increase the risk of police noticing them.

To address the stop disparity question more directly, RAND researchers have conducted a series of studies in Oakland, California and Cincinnati – two cities with histories of racial tension. We found that regardless of whether officers could identify the race of the drivers in advance, the percentage of black drivers stopped remained the same. That is, even in circumstances when race couldn’t be a factor in officers’ stop decisions, black drivers were still stopped at the same rate.

Such findings counter the longstanding belief that merely “driving while black” is an invitation to police harassment. And so many commentators on the Gates arrest have assumed that race played a role in the incident.  Norm Stamper, retired police chief of the Seattle Police Department, said, “My personal belief is that had Professor Gates been white, the outcome would have been different … maybe even a couple of chuckles ... it ended up becoming a huge national issue.”

It’s impossible to say whether a white Gates would have been arrested. But by examining a large number of police stops, we can draw some conclusions.

We looked at 500,000 stops that New York Police Department officers made in 2006 and found that 4 percent of black pedestrians who were stopped were arrested.  For each black pedestrian, we found white pedestrians stopped at about the same location, at about the same time of day, and suspected of the same crime.  They were arrested at the same rate: 4 percent.

The pattern holds true for other outcomes: 45 percent of black pedestrians were frisked. Similar white pedestrians were frisked 42 percent of the time. Officers used physical force against 21 percent of black pedestrians and 20 percent of white pedestrians.

We completed similar analyses in Cincinnati from 2003 to 2007.  Same answer.  When we compare black drivers to white drivers and make sure that they are similar on when, where, and why the stops took place, we find no differences in the stop outcomes.

While we have largely moved on from the profiling of the 1990s, the kind that resulted in lengthy court oversight in New Jersey and Maryland, our research showed that racial profiling by a few problem officers in certain neighborhoods may still persist.

In New York and Cincinnati, we found a few officers with inexplicable patterns of stopping a large number of black residents. And black pedestrians stopped on Staten Island in 2006 were more likely to be searched, arrested, or have physical force used against them. But these findings are the exception rather than the rule.

The Gates arrest rekindles painful memories of police brutality, of the tragic cases of Sean Bell, Timmy Thomas, and Rodney King. But these do not negate the progress that has been made to eradicate racial profiling – even if the improvement has not been recognized by the public, especially black and Latinos, a sizable majority of whom, in a 2004 Gallup poll, believed racial profiling is widespread.

When President Obama meets with Professor Gates and Officer Crowley this evening, he could use this “teachable moment” to communicate the progress that has been made toward ending racial bias in American policing. We need the perception to catch up with the reality that racial profiling is becoming – and must be made - a thing of the past.

Editor's Note: Greg Ridgeway is director of the Center on Quality Policing and Nelson Lim is a Senior Demographer at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. dina

    I wonder what the statistics are on: Police officers fabricating police reports in order to make it seem like a crime was committed, when there truly wasn't any? We know of at least one. There should be an audit and honestly the Presidents focus should be on outfitting police officers with more video cameras and voice recorders going forward. In this day and age this shouldn't be a problem, TECHNICALLY.

    July 30, 2009 at 6:01 pm |
  2. Jane Tribble

    Here is the scenario: I am in my home:it is being broken into: I am on the phone with 911 : I am asked to describe the culprits: I respond with :1 white male wearing a red hoodie and 1 black male wearing a green hoodie. Did I racially profile? Jane Tribble

    July 30, 2009 at 4:20 pm |
  3. Benigna Marko

    It is unbelieveable. Great idea.

    July 30, 2009 at 4:10 pm |
  4. Donna Wood, Lil' Tennessee

    I hope "Racial Profiling" is declining. Maybe it'll be deleted all together! That would be really nice! Tell you what, if someone is breaking into my home, I don't want to hear a discussion about what color the person of interest is, because by and large it probably won't matter to me once the intruder gets into my home, and I might happen to be there at the time, and no one calls 911 because they are afraid of starting a racial riot, and I get dead. At that point, believe me, it just won't matter to me anymore! That's my worst case scenario!

    Donna Wood
    Lexington, Tennessee

    July 30, 2009 at 3:31 pm |
  5. Sarah Burnside

    How about having a police officer not offer you any assistance when it is obvious you need help but he will not help you get home. I was sick, very sick I did not know until I was rushed to the emergency room that night how sick. I was at my pharmacy who thought they were helping me saw that it was made worse by the ill treatment I received from the police officer and the paramedics who had threatened me with the Patriot Act when they asked who the president was. When I released the paramedics I was stopped by a police officer as sson as I had turned around, he would not allow me to leave the store. He thought I was on drugs(I was extremely sick in need of a blood transfusion it turned be 3 total). He asked me had I been taking drugs and I said yes my prescriptions because I am seriously ill. He said "those are drugs", a lady who I call an Angel(she was African-American) was watching every thing her son worked for the pharmacy. He knew me as well as the other employees and she volutneered to take me home, a stranger. He actually followed us until we got to my place, as if we set up some plan for her to give me back my car. Evertime I think about what happened and know that in my heart had I did anything type of anything to have him take me in I would have died in jail because that was how sick I was. I had a blood count of 6 and was loosing it fast the doctors still do not have any idea why this happened to me. I was scared for my son I know he would have been in Social Services until they got ahold of his father. Racism is alive and running strong people will see what they want to see and will do what they want to do. The police officer would not take me home, I asked after I had asked him if he could follow me he said he did not have the time to do that , all had I wanted to do was go home and nothing else. Protect and Serve....

    July 30, 2009 at 3:00 pm |
  6. Joe G. (Illinois)

    Racial Profiling is all about making an inferences or accusations about someone, some people or a group of people whom you can’t call out by first name “because you simply don’t know them by first name.” And for that reason it’s surely never been an exact science. But when You/Yourself, your family and kids are at stake, everybody does it.. Everybody uses it. And so to say that Obama’s beer talk at the White House is going to eliminate it and make everybody lean towards giving up that fuzzy Rhetorical we all have come to appreciate for everyday use is inconceivable and at most an insincere claim.

    July 30, 2009 at 2:51 pm |
  7. Vern Beard

    Ok. Here we go again. The researchers know what a built in bias is. Until you can develop an istrument which is developed in collaboration with minorities, you will continue to get biased results which are unacceptable to minority communities.

    For instance you talk about the statistics regarding the high crime communities and the number of 911 calls. You need additional input from minorities in order to not only describe the demographics but also to include real case studies. Researchers will continue to come up with insignificant findings as long as they continue to use the same biased methodology. Statistics just cant tell the whole story,.

    July 30, 2009 at 2:39 pm |
  8. lampe

    Do you honestly believe that White People don't get pulled over by Black Officers, just because? The only difference is you don't hear about it because it's no big deal. It only becomes a big deal when it's the other way around. I also am an AA women, who has had this done to me, but by the same token, that is their job. AA's don't want anything to do with the Police, unless something bad happens to one of their family memebers, why is that? I am 54 years old, and to be truthful I have come in contact with just as many rude Black Officers, as I have White Ones.

    July 30, 2009 at 2:38 pm |
  9. Lisa

    This is ridiculous, it's time there be some fair practice of the law. I live in Los Angeles in an area of mostly Latinos (many are illegal) there are few blacks in the area. However, I see a lot of trainees making stops (their lead officers walk them through the procudures guiding them). Almost in every case the stopped whether walking/driving is black. My guess is that there is a different and more complex procedure in searching, and checking illegals. It's too complicated.
    It has also been a problem for police to identify the asian population on their reports. There are so many asian foreigners here however it's very rare that I see them targeted. Many of them don't speak english and so again I think the language barrier keeps the police off their backs. Added that most of the illegals aren't documented so it entails a different more complex procedure in which the police aren't prepared for or either to lazy to follow through. (I mean how many times have YOU been discouraged from filing a report?) They don't want the work. They may claim to not be in practice of 'racial profiling' but they're practices and facts indicate otherwise.

    July 30, 2009 at 2:31 pm |
  10. Dave Elsensohn

    One wonders, though: when "looking at 500,000 stops", through what records are we looking? Through the filed reports at the police station? That represents what was officially recorded.

    Ridgeway and Lim also make a point of not knowing a driver's race before being stopped, in order to debunk the concept of "driving while black", but then proceed with listing the data from black and white pedestrians... which are, naturally, more likely to be identified by race.

    It is also mentioned that this data is pulled from highly segregated areas, and lists the percentages of whites and of blacks... but does not compare those percentages between white and black.

    The patterns of those "exceptions" may not be "inexplicable". No white person I know has ever received the comment that his or her car resembled a stolen vehicle, or that he or she resembled the perpetrator of a recent crime. Almost every African American person I know has. This article has the unfortunate effect of increasing the outcries of those who think that African Americans and Latin Americans "play the race card" and that their claims are unjustified.

    It's possible that things are getting better... but despite the positive-seeming data here, I can't feel confident about it. I am not eager to accept the idea that it's all behind us now, and that we're wiser and more peaceable... not until those neighborhoods are less segregated, and the anecdotal experiences become fewer.

    July 30, 2009 at 1:43 pm |
  11. LC

    I'm sorry that happened to you because obviously it bother you. I'm Mexican and I don't care when that kind of thing happens to me, go ahead stop me and let me go cuz you won't find wrong doing. I got an "I you sure you have a license?" From a cop when he couldn't find me on his computer, he probably though I was ilegal...big deal, I just thought it was a little funny and interesting.

    July 30, 2009 at 1:34 pm |
  12. Sandra Hajek

    Here is an interesting thought. If you put 3 people together, one black criminal, one black professor & one white professor and ask the black professor which one of you doesn't belong with the others, who would he pick? Off the top of his head without thinking too much, who would he pick? I think he would pick the white professor (doesn't belong), I would pick the black criminal(doesn't belong). I think he may pick the black criminal only if he saw my point and didn't want to let me make it.

    July 30, 2009 at 1:30 pm |
  13. Wanja

    Racial profiling is unfair and if this research is telling the truth then its great that it is on the decline.However this is only their opinion and there are other sides of the story.As much as we all want to believe that the race card is getting old it is something that happens.It is something you need to experience in order to fully understand how bad it is.

    July 30, 2009 at 1:23 pm |
  14. Staci

    Regena Towles, ever consider that it's protocal for the officier to not tell? I understand your fustrations on being pulled over for not doing anything wrong but please understand that the officier was also doing his job. Thieves come in all shapes, color, sizes and ages....Remember that.

    July 30, 2009 at 1:23 pm |
  15. charles

    anyone can make bad decisions in the heat of the moment. racial profiling is a form of legal racist which should be banned but with hidden racist,like the email cop who said he wasn't because he had variety of different nationality. if that not 60's predjudist.
    just let people be one nation which is what this country was founded on .
    remember america is a melting pot of the world!
    i remember that i'm heinz 57, a mix of many ethnic backgrounds.

    July 30, 2009 at 1:00 pm |
  16. Mike in NYC

    Of course there's no possibility that non-Whites are stopped more often than Whites because the rates of crime among those groups, particularly violent crime, are much higher. No connection there, of course.

    July 30, 2009 at 12:43 pm |
  17. Baze

    I'm black, and I'm sick of black people complaining. Yeah racial profiling sucks, but you know what else sucks, all the bad examples that we as black people have out there that create these stereotypes. Blacks never critique themselves, it's always someone else.

    July 30, 2009 at 12:39 pm |
  18. Bakari

    I think at some point in everyone's life someone is going to be racially profiled, no matter the race. In this case it seems as though it's blown way out of proportion, and when the media starts to focus on issues such as race related situations it only seems to bring out the worst. How are we going to overcome something negative when we keep feeding it to everyone. I'm pretty sure if we stop talking about it it'll die away, but this is news and that's what WE THE PEOPLE need!

    July 30, 2009 at 12:31 pm |
  19. genxman

    i have an idea that might solve all of this...

    1) bad white cops, stop racial profiling.

    2) bad black people, stop committing crime.

    July 30, 2009 at 12:22 pm |
  20. Regena Towles

    I am African American female, widow of a medical physician. I've been a victim of racial profiling. A few years ago I purchased a new expensive car and I was pulled over while traveling back to work from lunch. I was not speeding nor violating any traffic rules. A white Policeman pulled me over, asked for my license & registration but provided no explanation why he pulled me over. While he was studying my license I asked why he pulled me over. He gave no answer. I asked again and he remained silent. He walked back to his car for about a minute, returned & gave me my license. I asked for his name & badge number, instead he gave me this response "I received a report a car like this was stolen", and he drove off. There was something disingenuous in his response, so I decided to call Dealers. I returned to my work place furious, called my Car Dealer and every other Dealer in Ft. Wayne who sold this make automobile. No calls of that nature had been reported to the police. I complained to police department, but they gave me the "thanks for calling" but without name & ID they could do nothing. Yes! Blacks are looked upon suspiciously if driving expensive cars, and especially driving in suburban areas of town. Ihave other friends, including my Pastor, who have experienced same ordeal. I'm not alone...

    July 30, 2009 at 11:39 am |
  21. Melissa

    Its about time someone said it. I'm so tired of the racial garbage on all sides of the argument.

    People are people no matter what color their skin.

    July 30, 2009 at 11:32 am |