About Racial Profiling


Since 1993, racial profiling has made national headlines in New Jersey, Maryland and many other states as the inappropriate targeting of minorities by law enforcement officers. The intense media exposure has reached all corners of our nation, and the issue has cost our nation millions of dollars, and has exacerbated long standing racial and ethnic tensions. Racial Profiling most likely received its greatest exposure during the 2000 Presidential Election campaign, when both candidates agreed that racial profiling is inappropriate and cannot be tolerated. Since that time President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Attorney General Ashcroft have continued to speak out against the practice and have begun to formulate actions against it.

While we hear a lot about racial profiling, media definitions of the event tend to be vague. We know that it has to do with the police targeting minorities inappropriately, but what does it really mean? A Resource Guide on Racial Profiling Data Collection Systems, published by the U.S. Department of Justice, defines racial profiling as:

"any police-initiated action that relies on the race, ethnicity or national origin rather than the behavior of an individual or information that leads the police to a particular individual who has been identified as being, or having been, engaged in criminal activity" ¹

Narrowly defined, this means that contact is initiated with a minority because that individual is a minority, and not because that individual has behaved inconsistently with the law. More broadly defined, it means that contact is initiated with a minority in part because that individual is a minority. While the behavior may be illegal (for example, speeding 10 miles over the limit) the race of the individual plays a factor in the decision to stop the individual. Thus, if a group of vehicles are traveling 10 miles an hour over the speed limit, and one vehicle is stopped because the driver is a minority (where as other vehicles with non-minority drivers are not stopped) then this action may also constitute racial profiling.

Racial Profiling is most often discussed in the context of police-initiated traffic stops and often occurs due to factors such as the belief that minorities carry drugs, or commit crimes more frequently than non-minorities. Thus, the most publicized form of racial profiling occurs when a police officer stops a minority on the roadway. Profiling may occur in other contexts as well, however. Other examples include custom’s searches, police-initiated pedestrian stops, DEA activities, and national parks enforcement. Within this expanded context, racial profiling can be thought of as the inappropriate use of public authority when interacting with minorities.

¹ Deborah Ramirez, Jack McDevitt & Amy Farrel, A Resource Guide on Racial Profiling Data Collection Systems: Promising Practices and Lessons Learned 3 (2000).