Racial Bias and Racial Profiling in Law Enforcement


Racial discrimination has been a major area of concern in North America. Although great steps have been achieved in fight against discrimination, there is fear that some form of racial discrimination still persist in our society. Law enforcement is one of the areas where some traces of racial discrimination are alleged to persist. Law enforcement is a very important task in the society. Law enforcers ensure that laws of the land are enforced and consequently maintaining order. Despite of need to prevent criminal activities, law enforcers are supposed to maintain high level of ethical conduct. Increased allegation on existence of racial bias in law enforcement is of great concern.

Racial profiling is a term used to refer to use of race as a discretion criterion. Racial profiling is mostly spoken about in medical provision, credit provision by financial institution and lately in law enforcement (Kennedy, 1997). The practice is viewed as discriminatory and against the rights of individuals it is used against. This paper addresses the issues of racial bias and racial profiling in law enforcement. The paper reviews existence of racial bias in law enforcement and how this could contribute to racial profiling. In addition, the paper will try to propose possible solutions to racial bias or racial profiling in law enforcement.

Thesis Statement and Hypothesis

Law enforcement is an essential task in any country. Law ought to be enforced without discrimination to ensure that all individuals live in harmony. Racial profiling is a setback to law enforcement.

  • H1. Racial profiling amounts to racial discrimination
  • H2. Does racial profiling help in reducing crimes?

Concern over Racial Profiling

There has been growing concern over racial profiling in law enforcement in the recent past. These concerns have led to many publications addressing the issue. Statistical reports addressing police actions in United States have especially been on the increase. Responding to increased public concern, there has been increase in number of states asking for statistical report on race and ethnicity traffic stops and searches. For example, the number of state requiring collection of data on racial and ethnic traffic stops increased to 16 in 2001 from 7 in 1999 (U.S. Department of Justice, 2001). Additionally, many states are requiring statistical reports indicating race and ethnicity when there are arrests from traffics stops.

Data on arrest and charges show ethnic disparity. Concerning traffic stops and searches, collected data show racial disparity. Statistics show that African-American and other motorist from minority ethnic groups are more likely to be subjected to police stops and searches than other motorists. Knowles and Todd (2001) report that African-American drivers were twice more likely to be stopped by police than their white counterparts (Knowles &Todd, 2001). Using statistics picked in Maryland for a period of over five years, they also report that black drivers were also five times more likely to have their vehicles searched than white drivers. Many people agree that disproportional traffic stops and searches are unfair to minority groups but many are divided over their importance in efficient policing. Despite of public concern, it is not clear whether racial profiling translates to racial discrimination (Gross & Barnes, 2002). Some commentators argue that the police are unbiased but only use race to guide them in fight against crimes. Others however argue that racial profiling translates to racial discrimination. Although police may not be intentionally biases while using racial profiling, in some situation police may be racially biased leading them to target minority races more than they would when they are not biased (Garlikov, 2007). While some other forms of profiling is allowed in law enforcement, the narrow line between racial profiling and racial discrimination makes racial profiling a controversial subject.

Historical Bias in Law Enforcement

Impact of criminal justice system is the US and Canada on minority racial and ethic groups is evident. The impact, especially of the black has been a major human right issue. Report from many states in United State show disproportion of African American arrested over criminal activities as compared to the white. Recent data in various states show that minority ethnic groups, especially black American are stopped and searched more frequently that the while. The number of African Americans that are arrested, charged and convicted of crimes is disproportionally high especially when their share in American population is considered (Rudovsky, 2001). For instance, at any moment about a third of young African Americans are ether in police custody, under probation, or in prison. The racial difference in search, arrest and imprisonment continue to be prevalent despite of the fact that criminal laws in the continent are racially unbiased as written. Law enforcers in both countries also claim that they carry out their duties without racial biasness. In addition, racial discrimination is highly condemned in Federal and state laws.

Although it is evident that there is disparity in impact of criminal justice system, it is not easy to establish whether the disparity is as a result of racial disparity. However, many people agree that some form of racial discrimination is prevalent in implementing justice system in some areas. Many observers agree that there is intentional use of racial profiling by law enforcers. Racial profiling, especially against African American is said to be responsible for high number of black American that are arrested in day by day basis. Racial profiling, where an individual is stopped, has their vehicles searched or questioned depending on race, is by itself discriminatory. Reports from some state explicitly show some form of discrimination in law enforcement (Bunzel & Marcoul 2003). For example, in New Jersey, the likelihood of a highway traffic police officer stopping an African American motorist is five times more than any other motorist. Additionally, racial composition in prisons and conviction for some special crimes such are murder also show racial disparity. For instance, forty percent of individuals under death row are Black despite of their small proportion in the population. The sentences offered to individuals convicted also demonstrate racial disparity. For instance, research has showed that the race of perpetrators and victims of murder has influence on whether and offender would be punished by life imprisonment or by death sentence.

Without doubt, conscious prejudice of law enforcers contributes highly to disparity in impact of criminal justice system. Apart from individual responsibility in racial disparity, there is a subtle trend that spread the practice in justice system. Apart from law enforcers, there is failure by white dominated political class to address the issue (Johnson, 2007). One of the strong indicators towards racial discrimination in law enforcement is the disproportionate dominance of African Americans in American prisons. Despite of the Black constituting only thirteen percent of the population, their presence in the prisons goes as high as fifty percent. Proportionally, Black Americans are eight times more likely to be imprisoned than white counterparts. Disparity at younger ages is even more surprising. Figures indicate that young Black men, who constitute about two percent of the population, make up about 35 percent of the people who are imprisoned. In fact, the rate of imprisonment at the national level is 17 per cent less than the rate of imprisonment of black young men.

Racial minorities, especially the Blacks are historically associated with crimes. Disparity in the impact of criminal justice system has been evident in history of fight against crimes. Fight against drugs has led to conviction of disproportionately high number of Blacks as compared to other races. The fight against drugs that started in 1980’s has led to high disparate in the number of black arrested prosecuted and imprisoned as compared to their proportion among drug offenders (Smith, Visher & Davidson, 1984). Discrimination in law enforcement is especially evident in the strategies used in fight against drugs. Despite of the fact that drug use and trafficking is spread across all races and social classes, law enforcement strategies against drugs mainly target drug dealers and user from low social classes. This ultimately leads to disproportionate arrest of minority groups. For instance, the number of blacks arrested for offences of possessing drugs is about 36 per cent despite the fact that they constitute about 15 per cent of drug users. It is also noted that, blacks consist of about fifty percent of those arrested for offences of selling drugs. The high number of minority groups convicted with drug possession or sale expose to harsh punishment.

Addressing racial disparity in law enforcement

Disproportionate racial disparity on impact of criminal justice system is an issue that should be addressed with urgency. There are various steps that should be taken to ensure that fight against crime does not lead to racial discrimination. The most important step is to correct some stereotype over crimes that exist in the public and in law enforcers. Although discretion is an important role of law enforcers and has high contribution to efficiency in policing, it can be influenced by racial stereotype. Law enforcers may be influenced by deep racial stereotype to judge an individual of particular race as suspect. In one way or the other law enforcers must use some form of discretion in the strategies, but discretion should not lead to racial discrimination. Since most of discretion is subjective, individual discretion can lead to racial discrimination where and individual is influenced by their individual racial bias. To address this there is need for uniform and monitored criteria. Uniformity would lead to standardized way of making decision suspects and arrests. Having uniformity through training and setting up standard can help to minimize individual racial bias (Becker, 1998). Cultural knowledge should especially be included in training in order to increase cultural knowledge of law enforcers. Apart from training and setting up standards, law enforcers ought to take initiatives to gain confidence from communities. Initiative such as community policing can help build confidence between law enforcers and the public.


Racial profiling is a major issue is law enforcement in United States and Canada. Racial profiling is against the cardinal rule of fairness and can lead to counter productive effects. Although law enforcers have to make discretion in their fight against crimes, use of race as discretion can translate to racial discrimination. Our justice systems have been marred with allegations on racial bias as manifested by disproportionate number of individuals from minority groups who are stopped, arrested or even imprisoned. This picture can be changed by avoiding racial profiling at all cost. Some of the measures that can help reduce racial bias in law enforcement include training, setting standards for discretion and community policing. Intercultural training can help to reduce racial stereotype and ensure objective law enforcement.

Reference list

Becker, G., (1998). Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach. Journal of Political Economy 76, 169-217

Bunzel, H., & Marcoul, P., (2003). Can Racially Unbiased Police Perpetuate Long-Run Discrimination? Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 68 (1) 36-47.

Garlikov, R., (2007). The Concept of Racial Profiling. Web.

Gross, S. & Barnes, K., (2002). Road Work: Racial Profiling and Drug Interdiction on the High-way. Michigan Law Review 10, 651-75

Johnson, R. (2007). Racial Bias in the Criminal Justice System and why we should Care. Criminal Justice. Web.

Kennedy, R., (1997). Race, Crime and the Law. New York: Pantheon Books.

Knowles, J., &Todd, P., (2001). Racial Bias in Motor Vehicle Searches: Theory and Evidence. Journal of Political Economy 109 (3) 203-229.

Rudovsky, D. (2001). Law enforcement by stereotypes and serendipity: Racial Profiling and stops and searches without cause. Journal of Constitutional Law 296 (6).

Smith, D., Visher, C., & Davidson, L. (1984). Equity and Discretionary justice: The influence of Race of Police Arrest Decisions. The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology. 75(1) 178-81.

U.S. Department of Justice, (2001).Tra±c Stop Data Collection Policies for State Police, 2001.Bureau of Justice Statistics: Fact Sheet, 23