Racial Profiling, Globally and Locally

October 24, 2006
Molly Lanzarotta

One of the state’s top law enforcement officials joined with Kennedy School experts last night in debating the issues surrounding racial profiling in law enforcement during a panel discussion sponsored by the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management and the Rappaport Institute of Greater Boston.

Christopher Stone, Daniel and Florence Guggenheim professor of the practice of criminal justice, suggested that the racial profiling controversy is really about three different issues. The first is interpreting the very different impacts of law enforcement activities on different groups in the U.S; the second is the experience of innocent people caught up in law enforcement and why their experience differs by race and ethnicity; and the third is the efficiency of law enforcement operations.

“If you pay attention to all three [issues],” Stone said, “there’s an opportunity for government to actually handle and manage racial profiling in a way that could increase public safety and increase the perception of fairness among people who feel themselves subject to this kind of profile.”

Kim Williams, associate professor of public policy, has been studying communities on the U.S. borders and the ways in which racial profiling can result in wrongful detention and workplace raids that affect American citizens and legal residents. “One of the questions is: what does a citizen look like?” Williams said. “If we answer that question by saying, ‘Well, citizens are more likely to be people with white skin,’ then you end up with alienation of the citizenry at the border. And, if it’s supposed to be about security, then you’re going to miss any aspiring terrorist who is white by focusing only on people with brown skin.” Williams and Stone agreed that skin color as a proxy for suspicion lies at the heart of racial profiling concerns.

The perspective of those involved directly in law enforcement was offered by Edward Flynn, Commissioner of Police for the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, and former state secretary of public safety. Flynn felt that one of the greatest challenges of the racial profiling debate is getting beyond the statistics.

“Statistics are a way to try to tease out racial bias,” Flynn said. “But I would say the term ‘racial profiling,’ in a social science sense is meaningless; it’s a political term. What’s happened far too often in public policy discussions is that gross disparities based on census data alone measured against police activity has resulted in false conclusions about what’s going on in policing, which depends absolutely on context. The context of an urban environment versus a suburban environment, a border patrol verses a highway patrol – those contexts mean everything. … Race as a factor means less the closer you are to a community.”

Flynn pointed out that when he was working in an all-black neighborhood with a high amount of violent crime, the racial disparity between who was stopped measured against gross census data “didn’t mean a thing,” because everyone in that community was the same color.

Flynn concluded, “The great challenge for all of us is to merge smart, thoughtful policing into engagement with the community … and to stay away from racial bias, intended or unintended.”

Photos: Studio KSG

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Edward Flynn

(L-R) Edward Flynn, commissioner of police for the city of Springfield, Massachusetts pictured with Kim Williams, associate professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.