Give police tools to avoid racial profiling

Racial profiling is ineffective because innocent people become the victims of inappropriate police encounters.

March 07, 2000|By John D. Cohen

THE DIALLO jury was asked the wrong question.

They were asked to consider whether the New York police officers responded appropriately to a perceived threat. What they should have been asked is why Amadou Diallo was stopped in the first place.

What we should all consider is what this tragedy says about policing in America.

We are a nation established upon the principles of freedom, equality, justice and humanity -- yet a majority of Americans believe that if you are a minority, you are more likely to be stopped by the police or become the victim of police brutality. Over the past several months, in cities and towns across the nation, the public's attention has been transfixed to a number of high-profile cases involving allegations of racial profiling. This attention has increased the focus of local, state, and even national leaders on the issue. It has even become the central topic in presidential debates.

Racial profiling is ineffective because innocent people become the victims of inappropriate police encounters. Even the perception that it occurs erodes the trust between a community and the police -- a trust that is essential to the community-oriented policing efforts that have fueled the nation's dramatic reductions in crime.

Unquestionably, overt bigotry must be banned from our criminal justice system. We must work to minimize or eliminate its effect on the way police interact with members of our communities.

But racial profiling is not simply a matter of conscious bigotry. Often, it stems from the subconscious biases that form from years of negative interactions between the police and the criminal element. To counteract these biases, we must create an environment that fosters positive and productive police-community interactions. Accordingly, we must cultivate the growth of community-oriented policing strategies and discourage the random and reactive policing methods that have fostered the us vs. them mentality that pervades many of our nation's police departments.

Communities should consider using a "results-oriented" strategy to end racial profiling -- replacing it with innovative crime-fighting strategies that marry information technology and community policing.

Four strategies could eliminate racial profiling by providing officers with the tools and training necessary to employ information and data-driven decision-making and targeted enforcement:

First, information technology should be deployed more effectively to provide police with accurate and timely information about crime locations; information about suspects (including citizen tips); and access to a broad range of data from the entire criminal justice system (e.g. probation, parole and juvenile justice officers.) Destructive police-community interactions can be avoided if officers have ready access to photographs and detailed suspect information on a hand-held computer with them in the field.

Second, law-enforcement resources should be concentrated on high-crime "hot spots" in a way that enlists full community involvement and support and builds on a clear understanding of neighborhoods, their residents and their conditions. The significant reduction in crime realized by the HotSpots Program, under the leadership of Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, provides a clear model for replication.

Third, a small number of offenders commits the majority of crimes. Identifying and targeting these dangerous, high-risk offenders should be a priority for both law enforcement and community members.

Fourth and finally, police recruits need training that provides them with the tools they need to work with communities to identify and address criminal activity. In addition to focusing on defensive tactics, training should develop recruits' abilities as they relate to information technology capabilities, diversity/cultural sensitivity and community organizing. Police departments should screen applicants for the ability to treat all citizens with respect and consider hiring recruits who display comparatively better communication skills and greater versatility in problem-solving.

In New York, an innocent man has died. As a nation, we must reject the myth that effective crime control requires the aggressive treatment of innocent people. Police and communities must work together to implement information-driven, community-based crime prevention strategies that incorporate better training and accountability. These are the ideals of modern policing that must be championed by our leaders.

John Cohen is director of the Progressive Policy Institute's Community Crime Fighting Project.

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