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The psychology of racial profiling in policing

Photo courtesy of Flickr user allan.rojas

Law enforcement agencies across the country have policies protecting people of color from being racially profiled.

Studies have shown, however, that Black and Latino drivers are searched at more than twice the rate of white drivers. Black women are three timesas likely as white women to be imprisoned. And, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in threeAfrican-American men can expect to spend time in prison.

Many people of color have experienced the discrepancy between official policy and reality. But it may not be something officers can necessarily control.

In March 2010, Kwixuan Maloof was driving his Cadillac XLR to his Castro Valley home. The managing attorney in San Francisco public defender’s felony unit was stopped at a red light when an Alameda County Sheriff’s deputy drove past him, made a u-turn, then turned on his lights.

“After I was pulled over, the officer approached my car and the first thing he said is, ‘What did you just yell at me?’ I thought, ‘You gotta be joking,’” Maloof recalls.

Maloof pulled out his cell phone to record the interaction. He told the deputy that his driver’s license was in the trunk, but did not permit the deputy to retrieve it. Backup arrived. They cuffed Maloof and escorted him to the back of a cruiser. Without consent, the deputy searched for, and found, Maloof’s license, at which point he was released without any charges.

Maloof believes he was the victim of racial profiling.

“Although it was around 10pm at night, you can clearly see who I am,” Maloof says. “There was no reason whatsoever to pull me over. I think it was a rouse to say he heard a loud voice. There was no loud voice. And I believe I was pulled over because I was black driving an expensive car.”

UC Berkeley social psychologist Jack Glaser says stereotyping is a normal human behavior.

“There are stereotypes of blacks and Latinos as being prone to certain kinds of crimes,” he says. “Predominant stereotypes of Muslims being prone to terrorism and Latinos being prone to immigration violations. These are all things that [are] in our minds. It’s in everyone’s minds, whether you endorse them or not.”

Glaser says even if officers consciously consider their preconceptions, it would not affect their subconscious stereotypes. When officers are in the field, Glaser says, “they are trying to make a quick judgment about that guy who’s moving, who’s turning the corner, or who’s standing furtively, or appears to be, and they’re trying to figure out what he’s really up to. What looks like suspicion to you that’s valid, might be influenced by racial stereotypes.”

Kwixuan Maloof filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.

“I want the police to know that if they do make a mistake, they should be accountable for their mistakes,” says Maloof.

One of the things he’s seeking is police training on race sensitivity.

Alameda County sheriff, Greg Ahern, can’t respond to the specific case because it’s in litigation. In general, he says, “cases where people believe they were stopped because of their skin color could possibly be their belief. But that doesn’t mean that’s the reason the deputy or law enforcement professional took that specific action.”

Ahern says his deputies already undergo an average of 19 hours of training on cultural awareness. The department has policies against biased-based profiling. It collects statistical data on the race, gender and age of everyone stopped. The internal affairs division investigates every complaint.

Since 2005, the Sheriff’s office has received 32 complaints based on race, but only found three cases involved improper actions by deputies.

On a Saturday night, I go for a ride with Alameda County deputy Ramsey Jackson. As we drive through Hayward, he decides to stop a red Cadillac with an open trunk.

“The trunk lid’s open, that’s kind of weird,” says Jackson. Jackson also points out the vehicles covered license plate and objects hanging from the rearview mirrors, all of which are vehicle code violations. “So you stop, you start talking to the person and develop different things,” Jackson explains. “You realize oh, gang member. That alone doesn’t necessitate us to talk to him. But if you’re in the community and you’re participating in the community, I wonder what these guys are doing.”

Deputy Jackson learns the young Latino driver is on probation. Jackson pats him down and searches the car, while his backup frisks the 16-year-old passenger. They find nothing and let them go without issuing a ticket. The stop takes about 20 minutes.

As we drive away, we talk about the issue of race in policing.

“He’s Hispanic, she’s Hispanic,” says Jackson. “That has nothing to do why we’re stopping him, or that we’re stopping him. But you realize, it’s Hayward, a lot of Hispanics live in Hayward. So I’m going to pull a lot of Hispanic people over just by the virtue of the people that are here.”

Ron Davis has been wrestling with this problem in East Palo Alto, where he is police chief.

Davis’ concerns were shaped, in part, from an incident he and his wife experienced in 1996 while driving their Mercedes Benz on an L.A. freeway.

“When they looked at the car, the reaction on their faces, they then jumped on their motorcycles, pulled behind us and stopped us,” Davis recalls. Davis “I felt like I was profiled and it stood out to me in that case.”

It also prompted Davis to think about his own career as a cop. He realized he had also engaged in racial profiling. “But I knew it wasn’t based on racism. I knew it wasn’t based on malicious intent. That it was probably more based on stereotypes and my own implicit bias.”

Davis took over as police chief in 2005, when East Palo Alto had the second highest per-capita murder rate in California and the fifth highest rate in the U.S. He responded by developing guides on accurate data collection and analysis, and building trust between police and the community they serve.

“So one thing that’s important to me and the department is rotating throughout the department and increasing the officer’s opportunity to engage the community in a non-enforcement capacity,” says Davis.

He also increased cultural competence trainings, organized community forums, and implemented a parole re-entry program.

“One of the officers told me it changed his view with regards to how he felt about parolees,” Davis says. “And it clearly changed the view of the parolees that now saw this officer as actually trying to help.”

Statistically, his methods worked. The city’s recidivism rate dropped from more than 60 percent to less than 20 percent within three years. By 2011, murders fell almost 50 percent, compared to 2005. And he thinks his officers understand how to avoid stereotyping.

This spring, Davis took his experiences, both as policeman and activist, to Washington to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about racial profiling.

“Even though I’m a police chief with over 27 years of experience, I know that when I teach my son Glenn how to drive I must also teach him what to do when stopped by the police – a mandatory course, by the way, for young men of color in this country,” Davis said at the hearing.

He also advocated for the passage of the End Racial Profiling Act of 2011, which was introduced by the Senate last year. If passed, a standardized definition of racial profiling would emerge nationally and law enforcement agencies would have to collect data and provide sensitivity training, or risk losing federal funding. Currently, the definition varies from state to state and department to department.

“I also fear that, without this legislation, we will continue business as usual and only respond to this issue when it surfaces through high-profile tragedies such as the Oscar Grant case in Oakland, and the Trayvon Martin case in Florida,” he said.

Attorney Kwixuan Maloof still feels violated about how he was treated by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. One thing he and the Sheriff agree on is the need to report these kinds of incidents.

“I think what we need to do as a people, no matter what race you are, if you believe police made a mistake or did something wrong, whether intentionally or not, you must file a complaint with the office of citizen complaint,” says Maloof. “You must file a complaint with their internal affairs. You must do something about it.”

Federal legislation may help standardize policies and enforcement, but social psychologist Jack Glaser says profiling is an issue that isn’t likely to ever go away.

“Frankly, there’s going to be racial profiling as long as there are stereotypes about race and crime and there’s law enforcement. And there has been for as long as there have been and there will be going into the future. It’s just a matter of squeezing it down as much as we can through intervention and awareness.”

Crosscurrents psychology