A Good Idea Gone Bad, Part II: When Behavior Profiling (Good) Leads to Racial Profiling (Bad)

Posted: August 14, 2012 in Police, Police reform, Profiling
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In yesterday’s post, I discussed the New York Timesarticle reporting that behavior profiling efforts at Logan Airport in Boston seem to have mutated into racial profiling.  Reuters has now picked up the story, too.  It seems that some  (not all) TSA agents at Logan who were trained in behavior assessment techniques have turned, instead, to the discredited tactic of stopping and searching people based on racial or ethnic appearance.  The goals of the program also seemed to have shifted: from spotting potential terrorists to looking for garden-variety criminals.  Why did it happen?

Yesterday I discussed one reason: a failure of leadership.  The TSA managers in charge of the program seem to have not gotten the message that profiling based on race or ethnic appearance does not work, but that behavior profiling does.  Today, I’d like to highlight another reason: an obsession with numbers to show results.  “[M]anagers’ demands for high numbers of stops, searches and criminal referrals had led co-workers to target minorities in the belief that those stops were more likely to yield drugs, outstanding arrest warrants or immigration problems,” according to the Times.  In order to get the numbers, some TSA agents at Logan fell back on the same old profiling tactics: “They just pull aside anyone who they don’t like the way they look — if they are black and have expensive clothes or jewelry, or if they are Hispanic,” according to one TSA officers who complained.

When the pressure to produce numbers in order to show effectiveness drives police or security work, bad things happen.  We see this in New York City right now and for the last few years, with precinct commanders’ fixation with producing ever-higher numbers of arrests, citations, and stops driving police officers to stop and frisk more and more people every year, despite the fact that crime is falling New York and has been for some time.  The evidence of this pressure to “get the numbers” burst into the open with the wide press coverage of NYPD commanders telling officers they had to make stops and frisks, whether those actions did any good or not.

Numbers-driven police work produces no real progress toward public safety.  And it can push out or even destroy efforts to use more effective tactics.  That’s what seems to have happened at Logan.

For further explanation, look for my next post.


  1. […] enforcement, in which managers want more activity and hits, to show their worth (here’s my post on that one).  The only real hope for change is to start by getting rid of supervisors who either […]

  2. […] who still do not understand that that racial profiling  is ineffective and counterproductive, and numbers-driven enforcement efforts, in which agents on the ground are pushed to produce more stops, searches, and arrests — even […]

  3. Dear David Harris
    You are right on the mark. This “obsession with numbers” is now worldwide–not only in NYC—especially with the widespread adoption and misuse of the NYPD’s compstat system —
    John Eterno and I document this in detail in our new book The Crime Numbers Game: Management by Manipulation. Media discussion can be found on the book’s website http://www.thecrimenumbersgame.com

    Thanks for calling attention to this phenomenon
    Eli Silverman

    • You’re right on the money, Eli. I was aware that you and John have done a great job in exposing this way of thinking. You’ve done the hard work, and taken flak for it. Everyone who values good policing and truth in public policy owes both of you. Keep up the terrific work.
      David Harris

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