A Good Idea Gone Wrong: When Behavior Profiling (Good) Leads to Racial Profiling (Bad) — Part I

Posted: August 13, 2012 in Criminal Law, Police, Police reform, Profiling
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In “Racial Profiling Rife at Airport, U.S. Officers Say,” the New York Times say that the behavior profiling program at Boston Logan Airport, designed as way to effectively ferret out potential terrorists, has morphed into racial profiling.  How did this happen?

I’ve argued for years that racial profiling is a bad idea.  Even putting aside moral questions, the substantial social costs of the practice, and the like,  it simply does not work.  Contrary to common assumptions, using race or ethnic appearance as one factor (among others) in deciding who to stop, question, frisk, etc., does not result in more efficient, productive police work.  Instead, it handicaps police, resulting in fewer seizures of drugs and guns and fewer arrests.  The title of my 2002 book,  “Profiles In Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work,” says it all.   Instead, law enforcement should use behavior profiling: sophisticated, precise systems of spotting behaviors that indicate wrongdoing, regardless of racial or ethnic appearance.  I discussed the success of behavior profiling in my 2005 book, “Good Cops: The Case for Preventive Policing.”  Behavior profiling originated with the Israeli aviation security system.  In my interview with Rafi Ron, who had for years headed Israel’s aviation security, he told me that the Israelis had abandoned appearance-based profiling, because it was too easy to beat.  Behavior profiling — for instance, looking for minute changes in behavior that come with concealing a weapon or an explosive — works well when it is part of a multi-layered security effort and includes comprehensive training and close supervision.

After 9/11, it was Rafi Ron himself who was brought in to construct the first behavior profiling program: at Logan Airport, in Boston.  So what are we to make of the Times report? How did this happen?

There are several clues in the article, and I’ll discuss each in a separate post.  Let me start with this: the people in charge still believe that racial profiling will help them get more bad guys,  and they’re looking not only for potential terrorism but also for garden-variety crime.  According to the Times, “passengers who fit certain profiles — Hispanics traveling to Miami, for instance, or blacks wearing baseball caps backward — are much more likely to be stopped, searched and questioned for “suspicious” behavior.”  Pressure from TSA managers led TSA agents ”  to target minorities in the belief that those stops were more likely to yield drugs, outstanding arrest warrants or immigration problems.”

Apparently, the TSA folks running the behavior profiling program didn’t get the message, or preferred to ignore it: Behavior profiling works, when done correctly; racial profiling fails, and must be avoided.  So some of those agents under their supervision responded by using racial profiling.  In other words, this is, first and foremost, a failure of leadership.

Other reasons for this failure follow shortly.

  1. […] behind this problem: 1) managers who do not understanding why profiling does not work (here’s my post on it) and 2) numbers-driven enforcement, in which managers want more activity and hits, to show […]

  2. […] by TSA agents at Boston’s Logan Airport.  Among the reasons for this, I’ve said, are supervisors who still do not understand that that racial profiling  is ineffective and counterproductive, and […]

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