Defining Racial Profiling

AuthorBobby Siu
Def‌ining Racial Prof‌iling
 *
This paper reviews the def‌initions of racial prof‌iling as expounded in
selected academic and government publications in Canada and the US. The
review is not intended to be exhaustive, but it aims to delineate the central
conceptual issues on racial prof‌iling which have been the themes of debates
among scholars, lawyers, law enforcement, and other public of‌f‌icials.
The paper highlights seven components in the def‌initions of racial
prof‌iling and variations in their scope, characteristics, strengths, and
weaknesses. These seven components are: social domains, coverage, ac-
tivities, rationales, triggers, psychological focus, and adverse impacts. Lack
of common theoretical grounds, inconclusive empirical evidence, and
competing values make it dif‌f‌icult to arrive at a consensus on the concept.
This paper is divided into four parts:
Introduct ion
Conceptual issues in def‌initions
Police discretion based on extra-legal factors (such as racial prejudice)
has long been the topic of discussion in criminal justice studies, but it
was in the 1980s that race became a dominant feature in policing work as
* Bobby Siu is an adjunct professor of p ublic policy and public administr ation, York
Unive rsit y.
Bobby Siu
well as the rest of the criminal justice system. The term "racial prof‌iling "
seemed to become in vogue in the 1990s.1
According to Withrow,2 prof‌iling has been used by the police to in-
crease their chance of identifying criminals (especially the drug traf‌f‌ick-
ers). Most racial prof‌iling studies focused primar ily on traf‌f‌ic stops.3 It has
been observed that some of these stops have been used as pretext stops
for drug searches and some drugs have been specif‌ically associated with
certain ethnic groups such as Cubans, Colombians, and Tha is in the US.4
American studies on traf‌f‌ic stops consistently showed that “minor-
ity drivers are stopped at disproportionately higher rates than they are
represented in the community, . . . among licensed drivers, . . . and among
actual users of the roadway” on a more local level.5 Exceptions are noted
among statewide studies, which showed that White drivers are more
often searched, ticketed, and arrested than Black drivers. Overall, min-
ority citizens are stopped and searched more often than non-minority
Meanwhi le, Tanovich7 noted that racial prof‌iling has been utilized as
a law enforcement tool in Canada. Wortley and Tanner;8 Bahdi, Parsons,
1 Rob Tillyer & Richa rd Hartley, “Driving R acial Prof‌iling Rese arch Forward: Learn ing
Lessons from Sentencin g Research” (2010) 38:4 Journal of Cr iminal Justice 65 7 at 658
[Tillyer & Har tley].
2 B rian L Withrow, Racial P rof‌iling: From Rheto ric to Reason (Upper Sa ddle River, NJ:
Pearson/Prentice H all, 2006).
3 George E Higgins, “R acial Prof‌iling” (20 08) 6:1 Journal of Ethnic ity in Criminal Justice 1
[Higgins, “Racial Prof‌iling”].
4 R ichard Bent et al, “Racia l Prof‌iling and National Sec urity: A Canadia n Police Per-
spective” [Bent e t al] in Richard Marcuse, e d, Racial Prof‌iling (Vancouver: BC Civil
Liberties Asso ciation, 2010) 81 at 83 [Marcuse, ed, Racial Prof‌iling].
5 Marielle Schultz & Brian W ithrow, “Racial Prof‌ili ng and Organizationa l Change”
(2004) 15:4 Crimina l Justice Policy Re view 462.
6 Ibid.
7 D avid M Tanovich, “Using the Ch arter to Stop Ra cial Prof‌iling: The D evelopment of
an Equality- based Conception of Arbitrar y Detention” (2002) 40:2 Osgoode Hal l Law
Journa l 145 [Tanov ich, “Using the Charter ”].
8 Scot Wort ley & Julian Tanner, “Data, Den ials, and Confusion: The R acial Prof‌iling
Debate in Toronto” (2003) 45:3 Canadian Journal of Criminolog y and Criminal Justice 367
[Wortley & Tanner, “Da ta, Denials”]; Scot Wortle y & Julian Tanner, “Inf‌lamm atory
Rhetoric? Baseless A ccusations? A Response to Gabor’s Critiq ue of Racial Prof‌iling
Research in Cana da” (2005) 47:3 Canadian Journal of Cr iminology and Cr iminal Justice
581 [Wortley & Tan ner, “Inf‌lammatory Rhetor ic”].
Def‌ining Racial Prof‌iling 
and Sandborn;9 Henry and Tator;10 Tator and Henry;11 W hita ker;12 Eid,
Magloire, and Turenne;13 Wortley and Owusu-Bempah;14 and Wor tle y,15
citing research studies and minority perspectives, all maintained that
racial prof‌iling in one form or another is quite common in the criminal
justice system.
Several human rights commissions, including the Ontario Human R ights
Commission,16 A lberta Human Rights Commission,17 and Nova Scotia Human
9 Reem Bahdi, Ola nyi Parsons, & Tom Sandborn, “R acial Prof‌iling: B .C. Liberties Asso-
ciation Position Paper” [B ahdi, Parsons, & Sandb orn] in Marcuse, ed, Racial Prof‌iling,
above note 4 at 31.
10 Frances Hen ry & Carol Tator, Racial Prof‌i ling in Toronto: Discou rse of Domination , Media-
tion and Op position (Toronto: Canad ian Race Relations Foundation, 20 05); Frances Henry
& Carol Tator, “Theoretical Per spectives on Racial Prof‌i ling in Postmodern Societ ies”
[Henry & Tator, “Theoret ical Perspectives”] in M arcuse, ed, Racial Prof‌iling, above note
4 at 55; Frances Henr y & Carol Tator, “Rejoinder to Satzewich a nd Shaf‌f‌ir on ‘Racism
versus Professionalism : Claims and Counter-Cla ims about Racial Prof‌i ling’” (2011) 53:1
Canadian Jour nal of Criminolog y and Crimina l Justice 65 [Henr y & Tator, “Rejoinder”].
11 Carol Tator & Frances Henr y, Racial Prof‌ilin g in Canada: Challe nging the Myth of “a Few
Bad Apples” (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006 ).
12 Reg W hitaker, “Prof‌iling: From R acial to Behavioural to R acial?” in Marcuse, ed , Racial
Prof‌iling, above note 4 at 15.
13 Paul Eid, Johanne Ma gloire, & Michèle Turenne, Raci al Prof‌iling and Syste mic Discrim -
ination of Ra cialized Youth: Repor t of the Consultat ion on Racial Prof‌i ling and Its Conse-
quences (Quebec: Commission des droits de la personne et de s droits de la jeunesse,
2011) [Eid, Magloire, & Turen ne].
14 Scot Wortley & A kwasi Owusu-B empah, “The Usual Susp ect: Police Stop and Search
Practices in Ca nada” (2011) 21:4 Policing and Socie ty 395 [Wortley & Ow usu-Bempah,
“The Usual Suspect”].
15 Scot Wortley, “Racial P rof‌iling: Def‌initions , Data and Policy Options” (Paper deli vered
at the Human Rig hts Legal Support Centre, Toronto, 1 November 201 2) [Wortley, “Ra-
cial Prof‌iling”].
16 Ontar io Human Rights Commission , Paying the Price: T he Human Cost of Racia l Prof‌iling
– Inquiry Rep ort (Toronto: Ontario Human R ights Commission, 2003) [OHRC, Paying the
Price]; Ontario Human R ights Commission, “Submis sion of the Ontario Human Rig hts
Commission to the Independent Polic e Review Director’s System ic Review of Ontario
Provincial Police P ractices from DNA Sampling ” (April 2014), online: ww
en/ohrc-submission- of‌f‌ice-independent-police-rev iew-director %E2%80%9 9s-system-
ic-review-opp -practices-dn a [OHRC, “Submission re DNA Sampling” ].
17 Alberta Human R ights Commission, “Racia l Prof‌iling” (In formation Sheet) (Edmonton:
Alberta Huma n Rights Commission, 2012), online: w
publications/bulletins _sheets_ booklets/sheets/protected_ grounds/Page s/racial_prof‌i l-
ing.aspx [AHRC, “Racial Prof‌iling”].

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