4. Race and Crime

4.5 Police Racial Profiling

Dr. Michael Ma

Racial profiling is the use of race by police and border security to select subjects for surveillance, detention, and/or arrest. Studies have shown that racialised people—especially Black people—are ticketed for motor vehicle violations, charged for possession of controlled substances, brought to a police station, and given overnight stays in police detention at a rate greater than that of White people (Rankin, 2002; Alexander, 2010). Racial profiling has come under scrutiny as a police tool because it is understood that police use stereotypes and bias to conduct the business of public safety.

Canadian research regarding police and race is overwhelmingly focused on the issue of racial profiling and the use/abuse of racialisation as a policing tool. Within this body of research, tension exists between two polarities: 1) scholarship that reveals the presence and practice of bias in racial profiling and 2) scholarship that disputes racial profiling as a racist practice or as a practice embedded within racial bias (Gabor, 2004; Gold, 2003; Stenning, 2011; Wortley & Tanner, 2003; Wortley & Tanner, 2005). The former involves research demonstrating that particular ethno-racial groups are subject to greater surveillance and policing than non-racialised groups (i.e., “White”), while the latter defends practices of profiling as valid tools of police work that are not premised on racial bias. Some criminologists, like Thomas Gabor, argue that race or ethnicity is part of a criminal profile and that race-based selection is a legitimate policing tool. In this regard, Gabor would support the profiling and detention of Shereen Hassan because the identification of her ethnicity or race is a legitimate use of race as a tool of criminal investigation and/or border control.

A common problem with studies of racial profiling is that the research seldom differentiates between different racial minorities (e.g., African-Canadians, Chinese-Canadians, Japanese-Canadians, South Asian-Canadians) and in so doing suggests that non-White people are merely a single homogeneous “other.” The study of racial profiling often does not present a clear or consistent reference point regarding who or what constitutes a race or a racialised person (i.e., a “Black” person). For example, in many Canadian studies that focus on the way African-Canadians are treated differently by police services, they do not define who and/or why someone is “Black” (Mosher, 1996; Henry & Tator, 2005; Satzewich & Shaffir, 2009; Tanovich, 2002). In so doing, the research unwittingly creates methodological ambiguity regarding the—Black—subject/object of racialisation. Although we can agree that Shereen Hassan was racially profiled at border crossings, studies of racial profiling at borders seldom explain how that process of racial profiling actually occurs through the profiling of name, race, religion, nationality, skin colour, facial features, language and/or accent. For a recent examination of discriminatory practices at the border, see 1 in 4 border officers witnessed colleagues discriminate against travellers: internal report.



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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Michael Ma is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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