Performance Objectives:

  • After a brief video lecture the participants will be able to define racial profiling according to the definition given by Massachusetts law and describe the practical application of definitions recognized nationally.
  • After briefly reviewing a case study, the participants will be able to describe how ineffective racial profiling practices are in assessing and deterring criminal behavior.
  • After a brief video lecture and participating in a voluntary bias awareness test, the participants will be able to identify their own biases and list strategies that limit the prevalence of these biases in their decision-making and actions. The online test can be found by visiting .

I. Definition of Racial Profiling

There are several definitions of racial profiling that have been advanced in the last decade. Four of those definitions are provided here with the understanding that Massachusetts police officers are controlled by the fourth definition.

  1. Racial profiling can be defined as any law enforcement-initiated action that does not rely upon the behavior of an individual or specific suspect information generated from a credible source, but that does rely upon the subjective use of the following characteristics: race, ethnicity, and national origin.
  2. The narrow definition of racial profiling states that if race or ethnicity is used as the only factor in the decision to initiate contact with an individual, then racial profiling is occurring. In other words, if a law enforcement officer stops an individual based only on characteristics such as race and not because of any perceived behavioral misconduct, then the officer has engaged in racial profiling.
  3. The broad definition of racial profiling states that if race or ethnicity is used as one of several factors in the decision to initiate contact with an individual, then racial profiling is occurring. In other words, if a law enforcement officer stops an individual based partly on characteristics such as race in addition to perceived behavioral misconduct, then the officer has engaged in racial profiling.
  4. The Massachusetts Legislature has defined racial and gender profiling as "the practice of detaining a suspect based on a broad set of criteria which casts suspicion on an entire class of people without any individualized suspicion of the particular person being stopped."

II. When an officer has credible information concerning a unknown suspect's race or gender, it is permissible to use this information to locate the suspect. This is commonly referred to as a "BOLO" or "be on the lookout".

III. How Effective is Racial Profiling?

  1. The purpose of this topic is to discuss whether racial profiling is an effective means of assessing and deterring criminal behavior. Law enforcement agencies that focus resources based on a flawed belief that one particular group of citizens is more likely to be involved in criminal activity based on their ethnicity or race are not effectively utilizing resources. If a police officer's attention is focused on one group based on a flawed belief, then criminals that do not fit into that group may proceed undetected.
  2. Hit rates refer to the proportion of searches that result in finding contraband.


    The graph above illustrates the percentage of "hits" in each jurisdiction that yielded contraband for searches of white, black, and Latino motorists. Note that this graph does not provide direct data regarding whether profiling was occurring in each jurisdiction. It also does not provide direct evidence of the percentages of individuals carrying drugs.

  3. U.S. Customs (now Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE) is responsible for drug interdiction efforts at our nation's airports and other ports of entry into the United States. The Customs agency conducted a study comparing searches and "hit rates" between 1998 and 2000. In 1998, profiles using race and ethnicity were frequently used. In 2000, the U.S. Customs adopted a behavioral based profiling technique and implemented it for their customs agents.

The study was the result of a variety of complaints from minorities, especially minority women, regarding a disproportionate amount of searches.

Data collection was one part of an assessment of customs protocols and practices. The results (1998) revealed:

  1. Minorities comprise a lower percentage of travelers than non-minorities.
  2. 43% of those searched were African-American or Hispanics.
  3. The percentage of minorities searched was disproportionately higher than whites.
  4. The percentage of minorities with contraband (hit rates) was lower than for whites (6.7% whites, 6.3 % African Amer., 2.8% Hispanics).

The U.S. Customs implemented the following reforms after 1998.

  • Staff were retrained to base searches on behavioral indicators as opposed to profiles based on physical characteristics such as race/ethnicity.
  • Supervisory control was increased. Prior to 1998, the lowest level customs agent had authority to perform the most intrusive searches. After the reforms, customs agents required supervisory consent to perform intrusive searches.
  • Countries in which drugs were known to originate were targeted. Greater focus and priority was given to flights from countries in which drugs were known to originate (such as Caribbean and South American originating flights).

After the reforms, the statistics showed:

  • 75% reduction in searches
  • 226% increase in "hits"
  • 50% reduction in intrusive searches
  • 5% more seizures
  • Contraband found on 54% of the selected travelers, up from 25% in 1999
  • Body searches reduced 59%, yet 18% more seizures

This study illustrates the ineffectiveness of racial profiling and reinforces the effectiveness of profiling based on specific behaviors and key characteristics. But there are other significant reasons why law enforcement practices that support racial profiling are ineffective law enforcement practice and policy and involve significant risk, such as affording groups that do not fit the profile lesser scrutiny.

IV. Unconscious Bias

Many people in our society are unconsciously biased against other classes of people. This means several things.

  1. It is not something about which the individual is aware.
  2. It is a common phenomenon in our society.
  3. Generally speaking it is advisable to become aware of such a bias if it exists because awareness allows officers to evaluate all groups more effectively.
  4. There is a test available that can tell you if you are biased against several groups or classes of people with respect to race, ethnicity or age.
  5. As part of the training you should test your own bias by going to

V. What is the law federally and in Massachusetts that controls police officers with regard to racial profiling?

  1. Commonwealth v. Lora (2008) is the controlling case in Massachusetts.
  2. Arizona v. Gant (2009) is a recent U.S. Supreme Court Case which may change the interpretation of federal law and bring it into line with Massachusetts law with regard to search and seizure law. This section will contain a discussion of these two important cases in the context of racial profiling law as it pertains to Massachusetts policing and provide insight for community members as to their rights.

Downloadable Reference Materials

  1. Practitioner's Guide pdf format of report_practitioners_guide.pdf
file size 3MB
  2. Commonwealth V. Lora pdf format of comm_v_lora.pdf
  3. Arizona V. Gant pdf format of arizona_v_gant.pdf
file size 1MB

Training Videos for this Module

YouTube image Module 1 - Part 1 Module 1 - Part 2