Friday, July 31, 2009

A meme that drives me crazy

There's this idea going around that officer Crowley, who arrested professor Gates, couldn't be racist. "He taught a class on avoiding racial profiling, so he can't be racist!" goes the idea.

Well, let me emphasize this: I don't have any reason to believe that he is a racist. However, teaching a class on avoiding profiling is not evidence that he's not.

You have to understand what racial profiling actually is, and what it isn't. Racial profiling is not a case of an officer who hates (FITB) deciding to hunt down (FITB) criminals. Profiling is trying to determine a set of criteria - a profile - for a particular criminal. So it might mean determining that a black man driving a flashy, late model car could be a drug dealer; drug dealers drive flashy, late model cars, after all. Using profiling, an officer might stop that driver, and try to find some excuse to search the car, looking for evidence of any criminal activity.

Well, if you arrest someone based upon such weak evidence, you'd expect to have the arrest thrown out as unconstitutional, and if the arrest is thrown out, the evidence gathered might also be thrown out, as the fruit from a poisoned tree.

Teaching an officer to avoid profiling might, or might not, teach the officer not to harass a black man driving a flashy, late model car. The only thing it's guaranteed to teach the officer is not to use that as the reason for the stop. So a bad officer who has learned to "avoid racial profiling" might still decide that the black man in the flashy car is a criminal... but he'll have learned to come up with a better, more defensible reason for making the stop.

So, you might ask, why does this meme drive me crazy? Well, because it's sloppy thinking. People see he taught a case on racial profiling and say "There! See! He can't be racist!"

But that doesn't follow. A racist can learn what will, and won't, be considered a lawful reason for stopping, investigating, and arresting someone, just as easily as a non-racist. Similarly, a hot-tempered officer can teach other officers about appropriate use of force just as well as an officer who is in a constant state of zen-like calm.

The only additional knowledge we have about Crowley, when we learn that he taught officers to avoid racial profiling, is that he knows police procedures, and what needs to be in an arrest report. And we already knew that, since his arrest report has already been made public.

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