Thursday, 11 November 2004

Does "behaviorial profiling" have to be racist to be wrong?

The widely-reprinted Associated Press report about the lawsuit filed yesterday against warrantless interrogations, demands for identification credentials, and detentions at Boston’s Logan International Airport (IATA code “BOS”), as well as the editorial on the case in the Boston Globe this morning, discuss the lawsuit solely in terms of whether “behavioral profiling” amounts to “racial profiling” and race discrimination, either necessarily (“on its face”, as the lawyers say) or as applied (by two Mass. police agencies with a long history of racist behavior).

That’s an important question, but it’s only part of the story. Both the actual complaint and the Globe’s own news story make clear that this case is about more than racial profiling, and asserts a cause of action independent of whether the policies at Logan are racially discriminatory:

The actions of [the police] in stopping [the plaintiff] absent any reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, detaining him against his will, and forcing him to provide them with identification and travel documents, deprived Downing of his right to be secure in his person and property in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

As longtime ACLU of Mass. staff attorney John Reinstein, with whom I also spoke last night (along with ACLU cooperating attorney Peter Krupp) about the case and the issues it raises, told the Globe reporter, “The question is whether the police can walk up to anybody, not on any reasonable basis but sort of on hunch, and require them to account for where they’re going and where they’ve been.”

As one Harvard professor and scholar of racial profiling quoted in the Globe news story points out, the decision on that issue is likely to have more to do with the interpretation of the USA Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year in Hiibel vs. Nevada than with prior cases specifically about racial profiling.

Ryan Singel’s commentary on the case is also worth reading, although I think it’s pretty obvious why an African-American man — even an ACLU staff lawyer — surrounded by Mass. troopers would hand over his papers, once he was told that he was already under arrest and explicitly threatened that he would otherwise be “going downtown”, rather than trying to stand on his rights. On the street, or in the airport, a bar card is no match for guns and clubs.

As the Globe editorial concludes:

The local ACLU chapter does not generally bring frivolous suits. The rights group raises the specter of groundless searches by police, which must never be allowed to fly in America.

Link | Posted by Edward on Thursday, 11 November 2004, 11:47 (11:47 AM)
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