Race as a bias in criminal profiling

Currently, two types of criminal profiling are used in policing: inductive and deductive. Inductive profiling relies on information from criminals who have committed similar crimes to determine the likely characteristics of the perpetrator in question. Deductive profiling uses information and evidence from the current crime to effectively recreate the crime in one’s mind and ascertain the psychological characteristics and motives of the criminal under investigation. Law enforcement has long debated which technique is more effective, as both involve very different processes. In recent times, both methods have come under scrutiny as public awareness of them increases. Criminal profiling is supposed to be used only in cases of extreme or notable violence, such as ritual or serial murders, or when the criminal is thought to be psychologically unstable.

The validity of criminal profiling depends on its level of scientific integrity, especially when used as evidence in a criminal trial. Much of the information derived from the profiling process is inferred, making it highly subjective. It is important for investigators to use as much objective evidence as possible when constructing their criminal profile. While historically similar incidents can be a good reference for current crime investigations, the inferred character profile of the criminal may not necessarily be accurate. Much of the information derived from criminal profiling can be considered probabilistic in nature and, therefore, not empirical enough to hold up in court.

A less scientific and more controversial aspect of criminal profiling is racial profiling. Criminal profiling is officially used to determine the psychological characteristics of a criminal as evidence for a fair trial. Classic criminal profiling is commonly used by federal investigators, but racial profiling, on the other hand, is more commonly associated with lower-level law enforcement using race or ethnic background to determine whether an individual is criminally suspect or not. Law enforcement officials may use statistical evidence or personal biases to decide whether to relate to certain individuals or not. This method of criminal profiling has sparked controversy for its use of past and subjective inferences, rather than present suspicious activities, to determine whether an individual may or may not be a criminal. Its critics also label it as criminal racism.

In a case of racial profiling gone wrong, a Cambridge police officer detained black Harvard professor Henry Gates at the door of his own home in July 2009. Gates, who had just returned from a trip abroad, found his door jammed upon arriving home. The officer, Sergeant James Crowley, was sent to Gates’s residence and ultimately arrested him for disorderly conduct. The incident was widely covered by the media and reignited the debate over racial profiling. Supporters of Crowley argue that his action was appropriate for police officers responding to a potential burglary, while others claim the officer would have reacted differently if Gates had been white.

Many argue that racial profiling directly conflicts with the Fourth Amendment rights. The amendment, which pertains to citizens’ rights against unlawful searches, states that no property should be searched without adequate probable cause. Critics of racial profiling do not consider ethnic origin sufficient reason to establish the existence of criminal activity and believe that no one should be subject to special persecution due to their ethnic or racial orientation.

Supporters of racial profiling, members of law enforcement who value the criminal prosecution of minor or major offenses over the civil rights of citizens, argue that racial activity is a useful and proven tool for determining criminality. Many also maintain that racial profiling can, in fact, be a necessary branch of law enforcement and that a proper examination of sociological trends can determine which individuals are more likely to commit crimes.