Racial Profiling: A Cost-Benefit Analysis

In investigating terrorist attacks, London police have announced they will use racial profiling; other cities, like New York, have said they will not. Michele Norris talks with University of Toledo law professor David Harris about the use of racial profiling to prevent terrorist attacks. Harris argues that racial profiling actually diminishes the effectiveness of finding terrorists.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Another development in London. The head of the transport police says his officers won't shy away from targeting groups they believe to present the greatest threat. In an interview with a London newspaper, the Mail, on Sunday, Chief Constable Ian Johnston said the police should not waste time searching old white ladies. In other words, they'll be practicing racial profiling to some degree.

The new British policy is a sharp contract to New York City, where police have recently begun randomly searching the bags of subway riders. In that case, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was careful to explain that no racial or religious group would be singled out. David Harris is a professor at the University of Toledo College of Law, and he's written on the subject of racial profiling. His thesis? That racial profiling is not an effective tactic.

Professor DAVID HARRIS (University of Toledo College of Law): What this is about is not political correctness. It is not about being kind to people. It isn't even primarily about civil liberties. This is about safety. And everything we know about how you try to find the needle in a haystack that is the terrorist, everything we know tell us you don't use race this way because it takes away the primary tool of the police. It takes away their ability to closely observe behavior, and it cuts into their ability to collect and use intelligence. Those are the two key things, behavior and intelligence.

NORRIS: You say it takes away the primary tool of the police. I'm not sure I understand what you mean by that.

Prof. HARRIS: Well, when police use racial or ethnic appearance as one of the factors in deciding who is suspicious enough to stop, search and question, what happens is it moves the focus of the security personnel, to some degree--that's all it has to be is to some degree--off of behavior. It moves it off of behavior and it puts it on appearance. That makes it less accurate.

NORRIS: You know, you argue that, but if you look at the 9/11 hijackers, all of them were young Muslim men. The police in Britain believe that London will be attacked again, and most likely the attackers will be men who are Muslim, men who are probably young and men who are quite possibly are British. So I listen to your argument, but I can also hear, you know, the critics on the other side saying, `Police absolutely should be looking at men in particular and men who have a specific profile.'

Prof. HARRIS: You know, Michele, you look at the Israeli experience over the years with fighting terrorism and suicide bombers. When they looked for men, the terrorists began to bring in women. When they looked for people who seemed to have Arab dress, they had people dress up like Hassidic Jews. It's very easy to say, `Well, we know what the enemy looks like, therefore, we should go for people who look like this.' But it takes us away from what actually works. The Israelis know this. They've used behavior profiling in their aviation security work for years. They've clearly been in the crosshairs of international terrorism for that long. They haven't had a hijacking in 30 years, which, I think, is quite a record given the pressure that they are under.

All we have to do is think back to the very first attempted attack after 9/11. That, of course, was an airplane going across the Atlantic. The attacker was not from the Arab world, he didn't carry an Arab country's passport, was Richard Reid. And if the police had looked for behavior, they'd have caught this guy with his shoe bomb. Instead, if we look for characteristics, our enemies will make us pay.

NORRIS: Professor Harris, I just have one last question.

Prof. HARRIS: Of course.

NORRIS: You seem to be advocating a form of behavioral profiling, but right now in the New York City subway system, the searches, as we understand it, are random; they're numerical. Do those kind of random searches work either as a deterrent or as a net to capture people who might do us harm?

Prof. HARRIS: Random searches take away the ability of the terrorist to use an unwitting person to carry on an explosive or a weapon, so that's important. It also tends to deter the terrorist who knows that they could come up as that fifth person or that 10th person or that every other person. You can do that kind of thing with a relatively small number of random searches.

I don't think, though, that that's the only thing going on in the New York subways. I am sure that New York's police department has trained its officers to look for suspicious behavior and to respond to it in appropriate ways. That is what Ray Kelly, the commissioner of the NYPD, did when he was the head of the Customs Service; he got tremendous results from that. The Customs Service did a better job in its mission of interdicting drugs, and Kelly is well-aware of how profiling pulls a police department back. He won't send them down that road. But I also think that that random searching is not all that he's doing.

NORRIS: David Harris, thanks so much for talking to us.

Prof. HARRIS: It's been my pleasure, Michele. Thank you.

NORRIS: David Harris is a professor at the University of Toledo College of Law.

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