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Racial profiling and searches: Did the politics of racial profiling change police behavior?

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Research Summary

Scholarly research has documented repeatedly that minority citizens are disproportionately stopped, searched, and arrested relative to their baseline populations. In recent years, policymakers have brought increased attention to this issue as law-enforcement agencies across the United States have faced allegations of racial profiling. In the 1990s, the politics generated by accounts of racially biased policing placed heightened pressure on law-enforcement agencies. However, to date, few studies have explored whether the increased social and political scrutiny placed on police organizations influenced or changed their general pattern of enforcement among black and white citizens. Using data in the search and citation file from the North Carolina Highway Traffic Study, this research specifically examined whether the politics generated by the media coverage of racial profiling and racial profiling legislation in North Carolina influenced the search practices of officers of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol's drug interdiction team. The findings suggest that media accounts and the passage of new legislation were particularly powerful influences, which thereby reduced racial disparity in searches. Declines in the use of consent searches and an increased probability of finding contraband also were influenced by the politics of racial profiling.

Policy Implications

The results of this study suggest several important policy recommendations. First, law-enforcement agencies must monitor the policing practices of their officers because such supervision can influence officer compliance with fair and unbiased policing policies. Next, supervisors need to familiarize themselves with enforcement data to identify potential problem officers and organizational practices. By doing so, police organizations will not only increase officer accountability but also will potentially improve communication with their local communities. Such communication can empower community members to file charges against officers who violate their civil rights. Next, the media and political effects documented in this study suggest that external oversight can be particularly influential on police practices. Therefore, police agencies should consider developing a citizen complaint board, which is an external oversight board that would be responsible for investigating allegations against officers who engage in racial profiling or other racially biased enforcement practices. Such a board could assist police administrators in identifying problem officers as well as in making recommendations for corrective action. Finally, external social and political pressure must continually be placed on police forces to improve equity in police behavior. These external forces can assist in creating opportunities for police to increase the overall quality and efficacy of policing.
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Keywords: hit rates; police searches; racial inequality; racial profiling

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Assistant professor in the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University. 2: Professor and the chair of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Publication date: 2009-05-01

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