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Lecture considers the efficacy of racial profiling

By Charlotte Hough ’14

November 14, 2013

Last week, Hamilton students and community members had the opportunity to hear Rutgers Professor of Political Science Milton Heumann present a lecture titled “Policing, Racial Profiling, and the New York Police Department’s Use of Stop and Frisk.” The lecture was especially timely and relevant as the Bloomberg administration has continued to push back against measures to monitor stops in the city brought on by Federal District Court Judge Shira A. Schiendlin’s recent decisions.

Introduced by Maynard-Knox Professor of Government and Law Frank Anechiarico ’71 as “one of the most prominent and clearest voices on issues of American criminal justice,” Heumann began his lecture by discussing his own personal fascination with the word profiling. The word has historically had a positive connotation in policing practice, used to describe the practice of sketching to locate criminals at large. “But somehow, profiling has evolved into a bad word,” Heumann continued. He then discussed the symbolic assailant theory as first developed by Skolnick. As Heumann explained, wise cops would be able to identify the symbolic assailant as “the person who has the correlates of someone likely to commit a crime.” This policing skill was first seen as laudable. Negativism would later encroach upon profiling in the practice of drug profiling, in which “race seemed to lurk unusually large, and unfairly and inappropriately large.” Profiling became linked to racism, and government officials and the media “tried to outdo themselves in condemning this concept.”

Heumann presented political science data on racial profiling in stop and frisk. Research shows that between 2004 and 2010, there were nearly 3.5 million stops in New York City, and 1.7 million resulted in frisks. Only nine percent of those led to arrests. In 2006, of half a million stops, 53 percent of those stopped were black, 29 percent were Hispanic, 3 percent Asian and 11 percent white. Of the frisks, 49 percent were non-white, compared to a lower 29 percent that were white.

Heumann highlighted that despite these averages, there were dramatic differences between individual police officers’ practices and habits, a fact he finds interesting. He also shared the statistic that more white than minority stops lead to police officers finding illegal contraband on the person in question.

After sharing this data, Heumann discussed what current case law says about the legal protocols of stop and frisk. Currently ,police are free to talk to anyone on the street if simply making an inquiry, and citizens are free, “in theory,” to walk away if they please. To make an actual stop, they must find “reasonable suspicion.”

“It’s less than probable cause and more than a hunch,” Heumann said, acknowledging that it is difficult to define and that it is in this definition where a lot of the debate lies. “Reasonable suspicion” will permit an officer to search a suspect for a weapon, but there are limits to how thorough this search can be. The law does not allow law enforcement officials to use race as a criteria for stops, except at airports.

Heumann challenged the audience to consider if race should ever be used as a criteria for stop and frisk practices, particularly if it can reduce crime even by a small amount. Many argue that the practices are so damaging to the quality of life of minorities that they are not worth the reduction in crime. Racial profiling also reduces the credibility of police officers in the eyes of minorities; a study that surveyed a population within a high stop area in the Bronx suggested that 89 percent of minority respondents did not trust the police. Only one in four of them would report a crime.

The Rutgers professor turned to discuss the “efficacy of different policing strategies” in the context of New York City. He highlighted studies, particularly one in Kansas City, that have shown the ineffectiveness of preventive control, or the presence of police in communities to try to stop crime before it occurs. Heumann also discussed the idea of intensive stop and frisk practices in “hot spots,” or areas of high crime.

To conclude, Heumann presented policy solutions that have been proposed to address the issue of racial profiling in stop in frisk, such as Judge Schiendlin’s idea of an outside monitor, or the proposal to introduce an NYPD Inspector General. Both present the possibility that police would learn to avoid the specific behavior condemned by the monitors, but continue with discriminatory practices. Heumann is particularly interested in policy situations that address the secondary consequences of discriminatory stop and frisk, such as implications for a victim’s permanent record.

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