Archive for the ‘Profiling’ Category

New York City will have a new mayor in 2014.  In my article “Ten Steps Bill de Blasio and Bill Bratton Should Take to Fix Stop-and-Frisk,” published in The Nation, I offer a way forward for Mr. de Blasio to start repairing the damage done by the Bloomberg-era policing of the last 12 years.

New York, and indeed the entire country, is waiting to see what the newly sworn-in Bill de Blasio will do the first week of January to fulfill his promise to reform stop-and-frisk.  His first step should be to drop the appeal of Floyd v. City of New York, a move he promised to make many times on the campaign trail….Once the stop-and-frisk appeal is dropped, here are the top ten steps de Blasio and Bratton should take as part of the Floyd remedies process to move forward with stop-and-frisk reform and end racial profiling.

Among the steps I recommend: allowing community stakeholders to be part of the reform process; setting up an independent monitor, and creation of an early warning system.  Many of what you’ll read echo what is in the court’s opinion setting out the remedies for the violations the evidence proved.

To get at least some sense of what Bratton’s approach may be, take a look at this article from the Wall Street Journal on December 20. Perhaps “collaborative policing” — Bratton’s most-frequently-used phrase so far — will include allowing stakeholder participation in the fashioning of reforms; it is too early to tell at this point.


On Monday, May 20, Judge Shira Scheindlin of New York heard final arguments in a trial about stops and frisks by the New York Police Department (NYPD).  The Center for Constitutional Rights and a number of individuals has sued the NYPD.  They allege that the NYPD has used stops and frisks for the last ten years in violation of 1) the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures,  and 2) the Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection of the laws, because stops and frisks have overwhelmingly targeted racial minorities — chiefly black and Latino men.   The judge’s decision may not  come for some months.  I discussed the case on NPR’s Tell Me More on May 21 (here) along with Delores Jones-Brown of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Here’s a short course on stop and frisk in American law, codified by the U.S. Supreme Court’s case of Terry v. Ohio (1968).  Generally, an arrest or a search requires that police have probable cause to believe that the suspect is involved in a crime.  Probable cause is less evidence than “proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” and less evidence than “more probable than not” (the usual 50.1% of evidence required to win a civil case in the U.S.).  A stop and frisk is less intrusive than a traditional arrest or search: it is a temporary detention (stop) and a pat down of the outer clothing for weapons (frisk).  So it requires only reasonable, fact-based suspicion — an amount of evidence less than probable cause.  To use the Supreme Court’s terminology, an officer may perform a stop when he/she has reasonable suspicion that crime is afoot and that the suspect is or was involved; the officer may also perform a frisk when he/she has reasonable suspicion that the suspect is armed.  Reasonable suspicion is a very low standard of evidence, but it is enough for stop and frisk because the stop is supposed to be brief and temporary, and the frisk is cursory and only for weapons, not a general search for evidence.

In 2002, the NYPD’s own statistics showed that officers performed 97,000 stops and frisks; by 2011, the number had increased to about 700,000.  (You can access the NYPD’s  statistics here.) Crime was already at historic lows in 2002 and is even lower now.  The NYPD claims that the continued drop in crime shows the effectiveness of its intensive use of stops and frisks, even though only about ten percent of these actions yielded any contraband or resulted in an arrest.  Over the same period, roughly 88 percent of those stopped and frisked were black and Latino men, leading to charges that the NYPD stop and frisk program was a form of racial profiling.

Judge Scheindlin’s comments during the final arguments on May 20 lead me to think that she will decide that the stop and frisk activity of the NYPD violates the Fourth Amendment requirement of reasonable suspicion.  She said she thought that getting results in only about ten percent of the cases — and finding guns (the objective of the NYPD’s stop and frisk activity) in far fewer cases than that — showed that the police were acting without even enough evidence to meet the very low standard of reasonable suspicion.  “A lot of people are being frisked or searched on suspicion of having a gun and nobody has a gun…[T]he suspicion turns out to be wrong in most of the cases.”  Proving that the racial skew in the statistics is racial profiling is more difficult, requiring both convincing statistical evidence and evidence of actions by the NYPD that target racial or ethnic minorities.

What do you think?   I’ll be keeping you posted.

Less than a week after the New York Times first reported that TSA officers at Logan Airport in Boston had turned from their vaunted model program of behavior profiling to old-fashioned, ineffective and prohibited racial profiling, the TSA has announced a response: training that will tell agents they shouldn’t do what they’re doing.  According to the Times’s follow up story:

All officers at Boston Logan International Airport, where the profiling is said to have occurred, and managers of similar programs nationwide must attend a four-hour class on why racial profiling is not acceptable and why it is not an effective way to spot terrorists.  [TSA said] the class would include “a discussion on how terrorists in the United States do not match any racial or ethnic stereotype.”  Officers stationed at more than 100 airports will have to take an online “refresher course to reinforce that racial/ethnic profiling will not be tolerated,” the department said.

This is fine, as far as it goes.  But we know that these TSA agents were already trained in behavior profiling.  This must have included an explanation of its superiority over racial profiling.  Behavior profiling works, because it focuses agents on what matters: behavior related to terrorist activity; racial profiling fails to do this and introduces distractions.  Yet the message apparently didn’t “take.”  What assurance is there that this will be different?

The re-training solution also fails to get at what appeared to be two of the major issues 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 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 encouraged or tolerated this activity.

There is one hopeful sign in the TSA announcement: Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano directed TSA “to improve the agency’s collection of data related to the program and to work with the department’s civil rights consultant to review program procedures.”  As I said in a third post on this, lack of data collection on the activity of agents means that the agency cannot possibly know what is going on, and there cannot be any true accountability.  This absolutely must change, so the Secretary’s announcement is a good sign.

I’ll be watching for further investigation and action.



In two previous posts, I’ve explored the New York Times’ article of Aug. 11 that reports that efforts to institute behavior profiling seem to have slid into racial profiling 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 numbers-driven enforcement efforts, in which agents on the ground are pushed to produce more stops, searches, and arrests — even if they have nothing to do with terrorism.

The third problem the article highlights is data — or rather, the lack of it.  It seems that those in charge at Logan have not been collecting any data on their stop and search practices.  According to the Times, “The transportation agency said it did not collect information on the race or ethnicity of travelers and could not provide such a breakdown of passengers stopped through the behavior program.”

After more than ten years of news reports and advocacy on racial profiling, going back to the New Jersey Turnpike in the 1990s, it is simply astounding that a federal agency like TSA, set up to do security and enforcement tasks that may involve sensitive encounters with particular ethnic groups, in a high-security setting like an international airport, would not gather statistics on its practices.  They should — in fact, they undoubtedly do — know better.   No data means that it isn’t possible to prove whether they may or may not be engaged in profiling.  And perhaps that is the why they have not collected data.

Of course, no data means that TSA is in no position to say they are not engaged in profiling, either.  The public is simply left wondering whether to accept the TSA’s professions of innocence on the subject.

There’s an old saying from business: you can’t manage what you don’t measure.  At Logan, stop and search activity is not being measured — not even in basic ways.  And that almost certainly means ineffective management.  The failure to gather data shows that if there is racial profiling happening at Logan, it isn’t a problem of one or a few “bad apples.”  Rather, it is a systemic management issue that allows this to occur, or even encourages it.  And that’s something we can’t tolerate.  As one of the TSA officers who complained about the profiling said, focusing on minority members “takes officers away from the real threat, and we could miss a terrorist we are looking for.”


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.


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.