Over the weekend, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump suggested that the U.S. should consider racial profiling as a method of preventing future terrorist attacks.
“I think profiling is something that we’re going to have to start thinking about as a country,” Trump said on Sunday during a phone interview with CBS News. “Other countries do it, you look at Israel and you look at others, they do it and they do it successfully. And I hate the concept of profiling, but we have to start using common sense and we have to use our heads.”
While Trump may believe that profiling “would not be the worst thing to do,” research shows that it’s an unconstitutional, immoral, and ineffective practice. And there’s plenty of evidence that it actually makes us less safe.
One of the reasons why racial profiling is so ineffective is because it diverts and misuses law enforcement resources.
The increased monitoring of a particular racial or religious group distracts law enforcement from looking at better indicators of suspicious behavior. True signs of criminality may go ignored if the person exhibiting them is not of the race or religion being targeted, according to a 2011 report by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
“When law enforcement is saddled with the responsibility of profiling entire communities for monitoring or for enhanced enforcement of the law, it’s immoral but it’s also a horrific waste of resources that could be redirected toward people who are more likely to commit crimes,” Scott Simpson, the Leadership Conference’s media and campaigns director, said. “And you do that based on more proven law enforcement practices like looking at people based on their behavior.”
Forcing law enforcement to sift through people based on their race or religion doesn’t make much sense considering that those factors have no bearing on their criminality. For instance, the 2011 report shows that even though the New York Police Department disproportionately targeted black and Latino people in stop-and-frisk searches, only 2.6 percent of stops resulted in the discovery of a weapon or contraband. Even though African Americans were twice as likely to be stopped and searched than whites, they were no more likely to be carrying contraband.
“Given scarce resources, making law enforcement go after every member of a particular community is counterproductive, and it makes it more likely that they’re going to miss either terrorism or violent crime or whatever they’re trying to prevent because they’re misdirecting their resources,” Simpson said.
Racial profiling also creates an environment where officers feel the need to target and even arrest more members of a particular racial or religious community.
Jack Glaser, an associate professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy and the co-author of a 2012 paper on the issues with racial profiling, told ThinkProgress that law enforcement often feels the need to catch a higher number of potential criminals in a particular group, calling it a “mathematical necessity.” This method ends up exacerbating disparities in incarceration, where a higher number of a certain racial group are put in prison because they are policed more than other groups.
“If they’re looking in one haystack, they’re only gonna find needles in that haystack, and they’re gonna miss the needles in the other haystack,” Glaser said.
And missing the needles in the other haystack isn’t a very good anti-terrorism strategy. Since terrorist violence is not carried out by any single race, ethnicity, or religious group, using racial profiling doesn’t make us more likely to stop terrorist acts.
Data collected by the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism shows that out of the 2,400 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil from 1970 to 2012, only 60 were carried out by Muslims. Further data from the FBI shows that 94 percent of terrorist attacks in the U.S. from 1980 to 2005 were actually perpetrated by non-Muslims.
“The data bears out that a variety of individuals of different backgrounds carry out extremist violence,” said Hugh Handeyside, a staff attorney at the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “So to focus only on a single race or religious group diverts resources and attention away from a significant portion of the actual perpetrators of extremist violence.”
If they’re looking in one haystack, they’re only gonna find needles in that haystack, and they’re gonna miss the needles in the other haystack.
Following the attacks on 9/11, Muslim and Arab-American communities fell under additional scrutiny from police departments, particularly the NYPD. Since at least 2002, the NYPD’s Intelligence Division has singled out Muslim leaders and individuals, mosques, student associations, businesses, and organizations for increased surveillance. Despite the years spent on this effort, the NYPD’s six years of surveillance on Muslim communities amounted to zero leads or even an investigation.
In addition to being totally ineffective, racial profiling is actively harmful. It erodes relationships between law enforcement and the targeted communities, alienating people who could provide useful information in counterterrorism efforts. Simpson said profiling ultimately makes it less likely that members of a community will come forward with details that could be helpful to officers.
“Under racial profiling, law enforcement doesn’t become a partner to make people safer; it becomes a threat to communities and a threat to your wellbeing,” he said.
Nonetheless, racial profiling has been implemented by police departments across the country — and continues to gain support from Republic lawmakers as a viable counterterrorism option. According to Simpson, that’s because the practice represents an easy solution for politicians looking for political gain.
“Racial profiling is a convenient answer for politicians,” he said. “But it is an ineffective solution and is counterproductive to actually enforcing the law.”
Celisa Calacal is an intern with ThinkProgress.