NYC Mulls Effectiveness of Racial Profiling Can so-called racial profiling save lives from terrorist attacks, or is the tactic both unfair and ineffective? Elected officials in New York City are questioning whether the practice of singling out specific races and ethnicities might be a more effective way to prevent terrorism.

NYC Mulls Effectiveness of Racial Profiling

NYC Mulls Effectiveness of Racial Profiling

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Can so-called racial profiling save lives from terrorist attacks, or is the tactic both unfair and ineffective? Elected officials in New York City are questioning whether the practice of singling out specific races and ethnicities might be a more effective way to prevent terrorism.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes a young Iranian give his perspective on the country's new president.

But, first, New York City says it does not use racial profiling in its search for terrorists. But now two elected city officials, a Democrat in the state Assembly and a Republican on the City Council, have urged the police to rethink their policy.

Meanwhile, in London, the chief constable of the British Transport Police said after the recent bombings that there's no point in searching `old white ladies.' NPR's Mike Pesca reports now on the pros and cons of using racial profiling to root out terrorists.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

You could be forgiven if you came away with the impression that a few weeks ago New York had introduced a no-racial-profiling program, which would have as a side element some random bag checks on the subway. That's how emphatic New York's mayor and police commissioner were in selling their bag-check policy as non-discriminatory. Exactly the wrong tact, says Heather Mac Donald, John M. Olin fellow at The Manhattan Institute, who calls the policy...

Ms. HEATHER Mac DONALD (The Manhattan Institute): ...a politically correct ignoring of what we know to be the logical necessity of Islamic terrorism. It's about illogical tautology. You cannot be an Islamic terrorist unless you're a member of the Muslim faith.

PESCA: Brian Michael Jenkins has been a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation for over 30 years.

Mr. BRIAN MICHAEL JENKINS (RAND Corporation): Racial or ethnic profiling simply doesn't work.

PESCA: Jenkins says it has nothing to do with political correctness. For one thing, the world's billion-plus Muslims don't all look alike; al-Qaeda operatives don't all look alike; accused dirty bomber Jose Padilla is Hispanic; one of the suicide bombers in London was Jamaican. Critics like Heather Mac Donald acknowledge the exceptions, but she says that leaves the other--What?--90 percent of Islamic terrorists still high enough for her to say...

Ms. Mac DONALD: The chance of missing somebody is much higher if we pretend we don't know anything and look at everybody equally.

PESCA: Paul Brown, the chief spokesman of the NYPD, says the police aren't ignoring anything, and critics who allege as much don't understand their actual practices.

Mr. PAUL BROWN (NYPD Spokesman): While we don't engage in racial profiling, we are still able to stop individuals who arouse a police officer's suspicions. So if you have individuals whose activity or the way they're dressed or other indicators fit a pattern of past terrorist attacks, naturally they're going to act.

PESCA: Perhaps the most tangible example of racial profiling not working was with the Customs Department. While searching a disproportionately high number of black and Hispanic passengers for contraband in the late '90s, Customs was getting a hit rate--meaning successful searches--of 4 percent. When they began searching fewer passengers but looked at behavior and not race, the hit rate jumped to 13 percent. The commissioner of Customs then and the commissioner of the NYPD now are the same man, Raymond Kelly. Perhaps bowing to political realities, he had to emphasize the fairness of the bag-check program. But, in truth, the police aren't ignoring the profile we have of terrorists. Heather Mac Donald still has her problems with the random bag searches.

Ms. Mac DONALD: No, if they have the resources to do smart investigations as well as random investigations, which are dumb investigations, of course, we should do everything that we can.

PESCA: But Brian Jenkins of RAND says the random searches aren't dumb. It was a major player in assembling the airline security procedures when it was decided that an element of uncertainty was needed for a few reasons. One, randomness throws off potential terrorists. Anyone you pick to plant a bomb may be pulled out of line and checked. Two, randomness improves security personnel's treatment of all people pulled out of line. Three, randomness appeals to our sense of egalitarianism, somewhat placating members of the public or whole communities who may feel they're being picked on. And so that scenario, mocked by British transport police searching old white women, actually has a purpose as US airports, says Jenkins.

Mr. JENKINS: Sometimes that random selection is going to identify an elderly person or a young person as a selectee. But if we're going to discard that, then we're going to destroy the element of randomness that was purposely put there for a very good reason.

PESCA: And sometimes, he adds, the random selection IDs former members of the White House Commission on Aviation and Security, like him. It's frustrating; i lot of counterterrorism is. But Jenkins says it isn't dumb. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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