Monday, August 10, 2009

Is Some Profiling Okay?

I think much better of President Obama now though I'm not always his fan. I voted for him last November thanks in large part to the person to whom he owes a huge debt of gratitude. I'm referring of course to Sarah Palin. Her post-election antics and recent comments (e.g., "Obama death panels could decide if her parents and her baby, Trig, who has Down’s Syndrome, will live or die") confirm that voters like me chose well.

Following the Henry Gates arrest in his own home I had the same initial reaction about probably stupid police behavior as Obama articulated to his cost. So I sympathize with him and his need amidst the media circus to make amends through a beer fest. The Cambridge police union had a nerve asking for Obama's apology. How does a uniformed law and order force get to have a union anyway? In India such a practice is rightly banned. It is interesting to see the racial divide on who people think was at fault.

My views on this incident and the larger issue of profiling are unlikely to please either camp.

First, I think the policeman James Crowley acted improperly in arresting Gates and was much more at fault. When Gates said he lived in the house Crowley clearly should have realized how an African-American Gates would be upset about his perceived profiling by the police. Gates probably assumed that cops happening to pass by had stopped to challenge him simply because they saw a black man getting into this upscale house. All Crowley had to do was to civilly inform Gates that the police had received a 911 call about a possible break-in so they needed to verify identity. Instead, Crowley mechanically repeated orders in this just-do-as-I-say-since-I'm-a-cop manner that inflamed Gates who was probably unaware of why the police were there. Too bad Crowley's misconduct was rewarded with beer in the White House, though I completely understand Obama's recognizing political realities and defusing an unexpected firestorm.

At the same time I think that some forms of ethnic profiling can be reasonable, useful and appropriate if done right. At our University of Chicago campus which is surrounded by some rough neighborhoods, in almost all muggings, break-ins and other crimes the perpetrators were black. So our campus police on patrol would frequently watch for black youths without book bags to enquire as to where they were heading to ensure they were on bona fide business. Were they wrong to do so? The chance of the accosted youth being up to no good was very low, say, 1 in 200. But for non-blacks that probability would be more like 1 in 20,000. So what's a more efficient use of limited resources? The only thing is, the university police went out of their way to be polite, pleasant and apologetic once the subject of their attention was confirmed to be okay.

Take also the case of South Asians and Middle-Easterners, including myself, after the 9/11 attacks. I know many of my fellow-Indians and especially Muslims were livid when they were pulled aside for detailed searches at airports. I had much more than my fair share of such searches, but I thought differently. How can I blame the poor security personnel? From my looks I could easily be a Middle-Easterner, and even Anita says I can have an intimidating gaze. So even if the absolute probability is minuscule, I'm a 100 or 1000 times more likely to be a fanatical hijacker than your average homegrown American traveler.

During and after my full searches at airports I'd put screeners at ease and thank them for keeping us safe, and mostly got a lot of gratitude and goodwill in return. Some screeners would then confess to being stressed by the indignant reaction of many passengers pulled out for this special treatment. Subsequently, to achieve balance and perhaps political correctness I'd see random passengers including teenage girls being identified for additional searches. There's some merit to this approach, but using it to supplant (rather than supplement) the traditional way including profiling is likely to make us more vulnerable.


Anonymous said...

I disagree that Crowley, the cop, misbehaved. First, he was there with another minority cop. Second, he did tell Gates what he was there for, which is responding to a 911 call. Third, he did release Gates when he showed his driver's license.

Gates, on the other hand, acted with a complex, "Oh, blacks are always being picked upon." Then, he rants for an extended period. And the cop then didn't beat his brains out like Rodney King's situation, but merely cuffed him.

And Obama was elected to heal the racial divide? Now, he's started a war by choosing to insert himself into the debate, and using a poor choice of words to describe Crowley. He should have stayed above the fray.

Sandip Madan said...

It's fine if that's the way it was. I didn't see any report saying that Crowley mentioned he was responding to a 911 call.

I also remember reading that Gates was arrested AFTER he had shown his ID and the cop was leaving because Gates followed the cop to his doorstep demanding the cop's name and ID, and saying he would report the cop.

Anyone have a link to reports showing the facts to be otherwise?

Anonymous said...

Yes, the Gates-Crowley situation had too much testosterone in it on both sides. But it's wrong for Obama to answer any questions about it because it was beneath the level of the Presidency. Like when Bill Clinton was asked if he wore boxers or brief, he should have glossed over that question.

But I do agree with you that some profiling is necessary. While it's sad that Japanese went to concentration camps during the War, it was somewhat necessary. But today we don't profile Japanese because the war is in a different quarter. However, I will point out that Germans weren't profiled or put in camps. But if you don't profile then you end up with ridiculous situations like my 80 year old mother being body searched just because her number was up. If you search everything, then you end up searching nothing.

Terrorists come between the ages of 17 to 35. Are there some outside that range? Well, of course. But we can't spend time searching 80 year olds. Well Sandip, looking at your profile you wouldn't hurt an ant. George W. Bush maybe... but not an ant.


Sandip Madan said...

Yes, Obama obviously wishes he hadn't made those initial comments though I found them perfectly acceptable, as I did Clinton's reply to that other question. :-) It's hard to predict how the media circus goes.

We agree some profiling is desirable, IF done right. Like your grandma situation, it was comic when I was once traveling with my (then) teenaged daughter Rubina, and she, not I, ended up being fully searched at the boarding gate.