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  Biennial 2012 Keynote Recap
  Racial Profiling: What psychology has to offer law enforcement…and vice versa.


Jack Glaser is Associate Professor at The Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. He was one of the incredible keynote speakers at SPSSI’s Biennial Convention last year in Charlotte. Here, he revisits his talk and and the topic of his research, racial profiling. His work reminds SPSSI members that psychological research can fill a void in the policy world. His book, Suspect Race: Psychological Causes and Societal Consequences of Racial Profiling, is scheduled for publication by Oxford University Press in the Fall of 2013.

Racial profiling is the use of race or ethnicity by law enforcement officials in making judgments of suspicion (specifically, deciding which cars or pedestrians to stop and search). It’s basically stereotype-based policing. Social psychologists have been studying stereotyping for almost a century, so we must have a lot to say about racial profiling, particularly given the profound implications it has for civil liberties. Yet, if you search for articles, chapters, or books with some form of “racial profiling” (race profiling, ethnic profiling, racial profile, etc.) in the title, you get only a handful. Search for some form of the term “racial stereotyping” in the title and you get thousands.

Applying what we know about stereotyping to policing is a significant opportunity, and responsibility, for psychology. We can start with a simple thesis: stereotyping reflects normal human cognitive processing; police are normal human beings; therefore police decisions are influenced by stereotypes. The association between racial and ethnic minority status and crime is a strong and widespread stereotype in the U.S., and it has been shown directly (by Jennifer Eberhardt, Phil Goff, Josh Correll, Ashby Plant, and their respective colleagues) that police officers also possess this stereotype and that it, like all stereotypes, can reside outside of conscious awareness and influence their judgments automatically. This helps explain why police tend to stop and search minorities in numbers that are disproportionate to their presence in the population. (It also probably helps explain why, in cases where off-duty or plainclothes officers are mistakenly shot by other officers, the victims are almost always Black.)

The psychological study of profiling affords at least two significant opportunities: For law enforcement to better understand the causes of racial disparities in policing outcomes; and for psychology to investigate stereotyping in a realm with direct, immediate, tangible, and profound effects. Law enforcement needs our help. Since the onset of the “War on Drugs” in the early 1970s, the incarceration rates of Blacks and Whites in America have gone from near parity to a six-fold difference—about half a percent of White men in the U.S. are currently in jail or prison; for Black men, the rate is about three percent. Worse still, the Bureau of Justice Statistics projected in 2003 that if prevailing trends continued, 32% of Black men born that year would be incarcerated at some point in their lives. For Latino and White men the rates were 17% and six percent, respectively. With nearly a third of Black men getting incarcerated, it’s hard to imagine that many Black children won’t have a family member spend some time behind bars.

The collateral effects of these dramatic incarceration rates for minorities are disturbing. Incarceration obviously leads to direct loss of wages, but, as Devah Pager has shown, it also causes lasting barriers to employment. It can have criminogenic effects, turning minor drug law violators into hardened criminals. Convicted felons lose the right to vote, and this right is extremely difficult to regain in most U.S. states. As a consequence, minority communities lose substantial electoral representation. My public policy colleagues, Rucker Johnson and Steve Raphael, have provided compelling evidence that incarceration of Black men causes HIV infections for unincarcerated Black women.

No reasonable law enforcement agent is happy with this state of affairs, but they have difficulty grasping their role in the problem or any solution. First and foremost, psychology can help law enforcement understand that stereotypes often operate outside of conscious awareness and control, and therefore even officers with strong egalitarian motives may be profiling, however unintentionally. We can also help them understand that stereotypes can be inaccurate because they can be formed through illusory correlation and they tend to be exaggerated by outgroup homogeneity effects. The inaccuracy of the stereotypes at play in racial profiling appears to be borne out by the very low “hit” rates (arrests resulting from finds of contraband and/or weapons) among those who are stopped and searched. A police department with a 10% hit rate is doing comparatively well. New York City’s aggressive stop and frisk program, which results in over half a million pedestrian stops per year (most often based on the highly subjective basis of “furtive glances”), about half of which are Black men, has a hit rate around six percent. But the rate is substantially higher for Whites than it is for Blacks and Latinos, indicating that minorities require a lower threshold of suspicion to be stopped. This pattern holds across police beats, so cannot be explained by heavier patrolling in higher crime neighborhoods. Econometric analyses of these hit rate “outcomes tests” indicate a similar pattern in multiple jurisdictions.

Psychology can benefit from law enforcement, too. Racial profiling is a domain of stereotyping where the consequences of the stereotype-based judgments are immediate and tangible. People get arrested and punished, and often the paths of their lives are dramatically altered (even those who don’t get arrested are subjected to a potentially humiliating and alienating experience). Stereotype-based discrimination in education and employment has similarly immediate and tangible effects, but in those domains, the result is typically the withholding of a benefit, rather than the imposition of a penalty. And subsequent to the discriminatory event, the target has opportunities for future success that could rather quickly reverse the effects of the discrimination. Not so for people who get arrested. This is not meant to trivialize discrimination in education, employment, and other domains. It is just that in criminal justice the effects are more palpable, destructive, and irreversible. From a methodological perspective, racial profiling, and the carceral effects thereof, provides a domain in which we can directly track the effects of stereotyping, and test the benefits of interventions.

My research on racial profiling began in 1999 when I read an article by a prominent legal scholar arguing that profiling is unconstitutional even if it is efficient and rational. I was struck by the law professor’s readiness to stipulate that profiling is rational, and I proceeded to try to find ways to test that empirically. I quickly ran into the “benchmark problem”—we don’t have the data to determine the actual base rates of drug crime offending or profiling to test its effects. Experimental manipulations of profiling seemed unfeasible. I pivoted to mathematical simulations and found that, with some conservative assumptions, racial profiling tends to have only very modest positive effects on criminal capture rates, and that it will create criminal justice disparities even when there are no differences in offending rates, and exaggerate any real offending differences (see Glaser, 2006, J. of Policy Analysis & Management).

Some proponents of profiling argue that it is its deterrent effect that is most desirable—if one group is responsible for most crime, policing them more aggressively will reduce offending. When I added deterrence to my mathematical model, allowing that an increase in the probability of capture would result in a decrease in offending, I discovered that the effectiveness of profiling was even more doubtful. Because it is typically a minority group that is profiled (try to imagine a socio-political system, other than Apartheid South Africa, that would accommodate harsher policing of the majority), and because profiling involves not an overall increase in policing but a differential distribution of policing, the net deterrent effect can be an increase in crime. If Blacks who are considering offending (a.k.a., “marginal offenders”) can detect an increase in the “cost” of crime (probability of capture times penalty), then surely marginal White offenders can detect a decrease. Unless the offending is overwhelmingly concentrated in the minority group, the boosting effect of profiling on the majority group’s marginal offenders, who feel they can offend with relative impunity, could cause a net increase in crime. My colleague, Amy Hackney, and I call this “reverse deterrence.”

Racial profiling causes racial disparities in the criminal justice system. It has modest incapacitative effects, at best. It can lead to a net increase in crime. It violates the U.S. Constitutional protections of due process and equal protection. It alienates, disenfranchises, and causes collateral harms to minority communities. Surely, it is intolerable. And yet, the U.S. Supreme Court tolerates it, demurring from honoring it as a defense in criminal trials, expressing indifference to the actual motives of officers, as long as they have a valid pretext for a stop. Policy responses to date have been inadequate. Congress has been unable to pass national legislation. State and departmental bans abound, but they lack meaningful enforcement mechanisms.

The most common policy response is data collection requirements, resulting sometimes from legislation and often from civil action. Lamentably, data police collect on pedestrian and traffic stops are inconsistent, and are rarely analyzed with any rigor. To that end, the Consortium for Police Leadership in Equity, led by Phil Goff, is working with major city police departments to establish national standards for data collection and analysis. Importantly, we are combining this with measures of attitudes (implicit and explicit), departmental culture, and beat demographics to begin triangulating on the causes of racially biased policing, and the indicators of problems in a given department. We have also begun developing interventions to reduce the impact of implicit biases on police decisions about whom to stop and search.

My view is that the vast majority of police officers do not want to discriminate. I know for a fact that their supervisors feel the same way, many very strongly. Insights from psychology, particularly about the automaticity of stereotyping, will help those who enforce our laws to bring their behaviors into line with our constitutional principles.

—Jack Glaser



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