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IT’S TIME TO TALK ABOUT PROFILING


March 13, 2015
By Chris D. Lewis

One type of criminal profiling is very legal and the other is very wrong. Police leaders (including me) have not always done a good job of explaining the difference to the people they serve. It’s a difficult conversation in a world where we often struggle to not offend and to be overly politically correct.

Criminal profiling is a multi-dimensional activity. Sometimes it involves an intense process by which highly-trained police behavioural scientists study victimology, geographic factors, complex crime scenes, offender planning and actions and more after horrible crimes such as sexual assaults and murders.

Sometimes the race of the victim and/or suspect become key factors based on that in-depth analysis, combined with decades of study, statistical gathering and interviews with known offenders that assist criminal profilers in forming profiles.

Other times criminal profiling is a simpler and ad hoc process by which police officers make quick decisions that a vehicle or person(s) don’t seem right in a given situation, may be likelier to be involved in an illegal activity or fits the description of reported suspects.

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I profiled vehicles and people my whole active policing career. That’s what makes good cops great cops in my view, but only “if” decisions are not based on racial bias. Bear in mind that I seldom worked in a jurisdiction predominantly inhabited by a specific race, religion, colour, culture, etc., but I certainly did profile motorists and pedestrians, non-stop. Let me explain further.

Many young men moved to Alberta in the 1970s and early ’80s for lucrative jobs in the oil fields. A number (not all!) left unpaid fines, licence suspensions and outstanding warrants in Ontario when they departed.
They made huge money in Alberta and could afford illegal drugs.

As a young cop in Northern Ontario, I stopped cars with Alberta plates driven by young men and had a good sniff for drugs, searching their vehicles if I could get consent and running the individuals for outstanding warrants. Guess what? I struck gold time after time, seizing tons of drugs and alcohol and making many arrests. The race of the occupants was never a factor but I truly was “profiling.”

Over the years, all police officers patrol high crime areas more than those with lower crime rates. That’s what they should be doing. If a green van was seen leaving various break and enter scenes in high-crime areas, police would begin stopping every green van they see in that area at times when such crimes occur. The race of the occupants might be a factor IF reports are that the green van had occupants of a certain race. Otherwise it should not.

If people of any colour are driving slowly late at night in an industrial area known to have many crimes, of course police are going to check them out. The same could be said about people walking around closed businesses in the dead of night. Police would speak to them and find out what they’re doing there, regardless of their race. By the same token, if people of any colour drive slowly through a neighborhood where drug dealers peddle their wares, police will investigate.

If I saw “people” of any race riding a motorcycle (or any vehicle) in an area near a bike gang clubhouse or active party-house – and I often did – I would stop them and see “who is who” and what they were doing. Colour was never a factor in my rationale for making the stop. It was simply wanting to see who the gang members were and who associated with them. There may have been a million legal authority issues around such “profiling” and vehicle stops in that era but no one could ever accuse me of racial profiling.

When I worked in a community where 95 per cent of the residents were Francophone, my corporal challenged me one day, saying that I seemed to stop more people who spoke French than English. We had a heated debate.

“What do you want me to do, pick on the three English speaking people I saw today?,” I asked. My friends, neighbors, service club colleagues and sports teammates were all French. I didn’t have a biased bone in my body, but one could argue that statistically I did stop more French than English motorists. What I was doing was completely appropriate.

When more crimes are committed against people of a certain colour by people of that same colour in a given area, it’s only common sense for police to interact with them (suspects, witnesses and victims) more than others. This statistical reality does not suggest racial profiling. This isn’t rocket science.

However, biases and prejudices do exist among human beings, and sadly that includes some police officers. Racism and biases are never right and always unacceptable. Police officers are public servants, have immense powers bestowed on them and should be held to a higher standard. If they apply those biases to their work, that’s completely wrong and must be corrected.

Approaching motorists, pedestrians, victims, witnesses or suspects discriminately and without due respect because of colour, gender, religion, sexuality etc., clearly violates their human rights. The trust of the public in their police is paramount and police owe it to the community to do all they can to retain internal and public trust.

Police leaders must deal with allegations of racism immediately and appropriately, through due process. They must do more than take action; they need to be seen to effectively address the issue head on to retain the trust of the majority of members who are not racist, and the public they are sworn to serve.

Bias-free policing, community policing committees, race relations initiatives, targeted recruitment of employees who reflect a community’s cultural and racial makeup and police-community relations groups are not flash-in-the-pan initiatives to try and repair fractured relationships. They are simply a must for police departments everywhere but these alone will not totally repair historical damage and bad feelings, nor will they ensure trustful relationships between police and the community.

Day to day interactions between police and those they serve is where the rubber meets the road. Police leaders need to have open, honest and respectful dialogue with residents about these difficult matters so that the vast majority of people on all sides of the issue truly understand where other perspectives lay – and why. We haven’t always done that well.

I dream of a day when racism is gone from all human interaction across the world, but as a retired police leader, I want that even more so for policing. Sorting out what racism truly is from what it isn’t is challenging, but it’s an important first step in collectively moving forward.

– Rosa Parks.