A new national database on racial profiling, the first ever in the United States, will break new ground in promoting equity in law enforcement, researchers and activists said.
“You’re not going to see anybody marching about it, but getting this data all together in one place may be the most revolutionary act in promoting racial equity in law enforcement,” said Phillip Atiba Goff, a Black social psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of the Center for Policing Equity.
Goff recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation to create the database. The expert on racial profiling said the impetus was the feedback from law enforcement departments across the country who said they “desperately” needed someone to come in and help them tackle the issue. But the lack of a standardized system of data collection made that difficult, he said.
“There was no consensus on how to collect the data or how to analyze it if it was collected,” Goff said, “[and] you can’t manage something that can’t be measured.”
Racial profiling has been a longtime scourge upon Black and Brown people in America. In cases from the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, to attacks on dozens of Black men and boys each year by police officers, the motivation for violence perpetrated on Blacks is often attributed to racial profiling.
“The practice of racial profiling goes back to the beginnings of this country,” said Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s Washington Bureau chief and senior vice president for advocacy and policy.
From Native Americans to the enslaved African Americans and their descendants, and from Hispanic immigrants to Muslim worshipers, non-Whites in the U.S. have been the targets of unfair policing practices, as in the case of New York’s stop-and-frisk policy, which a federal judge recently deemed “unconstitutional.”
The impact of racial profiling has been devastating, Shelton said.
“Unfortunately this is a practice that is not only discriminatory, but it has also proven ineffective in meeting law enforcement goals,” he said. “It undercuts much of the progress made by police departments that are working hard to implement the law because it diminishes the trust between law enforcement and the community.”
At first, overtly racist attitudes formed the main impetus of racial profiling in America. In modern times, however, that explanation is much too “simple,” Goff said.
“Inequality is going up at the same time that racial prejudice is going down. So we have to come up with a different explanation for what is happening,” he said.
Covert racism based on stereotypes about a racial or ethnic group can lead to racial profiling and sometimes situations can create disparate outcomes even without explicit or implicit bias, Goff said.
The UCLA professor said he hopes the database will help foster more understanding of the phenomenon and become a tool to promote fairer policing and also better inform and engage the community in the law enforcement process.
Initially, the database will include data from 30-70 police departments across the country on pedestrian stops, vehicle stops and police use of force.
“At the end of this process we will have a set of standards for how to collect racial profiling data,” Goff said. “We’re [also] hoping that from this data and analyses we can come up with an algorithm to measure racial profiling.”
Ultimately, Goff added, “our hope is that the database will help to reduce bias-based policing or the unconstitutional use of race to stop and detain someone.”