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Perspectives: The Black Community’s Shared Responsibility in ‘Wrongful’ Police Profiling

The recent arrest by Cambridge, Mass., Police Sgt. James Crowley of renowned scholar Dr. Henry Louis Gates has touched off yet another debate regarding police profiling the Black community and disproportionate arrests of minorities, particularly African-American men. Countless high-profile research studies have revealed a great disparity in police stops and arrests of African-American men as compared to Whites, thus it should come as no surprise that some element of police biases do exist in law enforcement. What is apparent and missing from the dialogue on police profiling minorities is the dark side of the coin that asks the question, “is there a shared responsibility between the African-American community and policing that co-equally contribute to the disparity figures”? 

As a criminal justice professor at a predominately minority serving institution, I commonly inquire of the students whether they would pursue a career in law enforcement.  Without fail, out of an average class size of 20 students, no greater than two students will raise their hand. When I ask why not, common responses are “I don’t like police,” “too many negative experiences with the police,” “I don’t want to be a snitch,” and “the police in my neighborhood are crooked and only harass people instead of helping.” Typically, these truth sessions open up a teaching moment that most academicians love when I begin to discuss the multitude of benefits and opportunities a career in law enforcement offers. But, to no avail, the students are settled to not want to pursue law enforcement, and most continue to house a deep-seated negative opinion about police. Why does this young generation, so removed from the Civil Rights and Social Justice movements of the 1960s and 1970s, have such resentment and hatred for police? Are police across America truly engaged in an aggressive campaign to harass and arrest Blacks and other ethnic minorities?  More common answers to these questions center on beliefs of conspiracy theories, which I do not attest to be true, at least on this subject matter.

The policing of Black communities throughout the timeline of American history can be characterized as aggressive, often inflammatory, and violent, with elements of racially charged insensitivity toward community cultures and its people. Throughout American history, police have aggressively enforced the minority communities in accordance with the political climates of the times. These aggressive policing tactics of enforcement for social control created what is referred to as the “historical divide,” which is in reference to the deep division of trust between policing agencies and minority communities.  Just as any union of two parties experiencing a devoid of trust, it can be assumed that both parties in that broken union have played a significant role in its separation. If the union is to be repaired, the onus should not be placed particularly on the partner with the greatest responsible weight to make correction, but equal distribution of participation is required. Continued reports of police harassments, disproportionate stops and arrests, and unauthorized use of force on Blacks are indications of an historical divide still rooted in the mentalities and perceptions of both police and members of the minority community.

Much has been written with focus on police at the center of the racial profiling debate. Yet, few studies have focused on the responsibility of the Black community in attributing to the perceived police profiling of their respective communities. The unpopularity of this focus will undoubtedly have its critiques. Too often, it has become taboo to blame the victim of an apparent wrong as having a responsible hand in his or her own victimization. But, with objectivity in mind, I contend that police profiling is an overused, mythical phenomenon that exists in the minds of those members of disadvantaged communities who plague their own communities with criminal intent and desire to devolve their evil intentions on the police officers who are called on to protect citizens against their evil wrongdoings.

In addition, police profiling, as is profiling in other societal occupations (finance, economics, meteorology, etc.), is a necessary component of policing that allows police to efficiently detect wrongdoing and effectively enforce criminal laws. Policing is an industry within the industrial system that relies on forecasting as a necessary means of positioning its resources in areas of efficiency and effectiveness. Unique to policing, forecasting relies on the need to predict and detect patterns of human behavior in violation of legal codes and statutes. Criminal acts, as well as criminals, have unique behaviors that allow police to predict criminality on the basis of a particular human behavior and trends. Unfortunately, many predominately Black communities have greater rates of poverty, which breed the more serious crimes of drugs, murder, prostitution, and gang-related violence that are not found in other communities. The repeated rates of victimization within these communities call for more police presence as a means to curtail some acts and protect citizens.

The underlying and persistent divide between the Black community and police attribute to perceptions of police “wrongful” profiling, as evident in the case of Dr. Gates. Though varying versions of the confrontation between Dr. Gates and Sergeant Crowley avail, one can make a good determination of facts by looking objectively at the parties involved to discern an accurate picture of events. Sergeant Crowley is said to be a decorated officer with an impeccable record. Of credibility support for Sergeant Crowley is the recognition that he is designated as a training officer on police profiling for the Cambridge Police. Respectfully, Dr. Gates is a known scholar and author at Harvard University. How ironic that fate would have the paths of these two unique individuals to cross at a time when American society, particularly the African-American community, is awaiting the first African-American president of the United States to begin the healing process in dialogue on the racial divide that has crippled American society for centuries. As more of the story begins to unfold, it is safe to assume that Sergeant Crowley had no agenda in “wrongfully profiling” or harassing Dr. Gates. From media reports and statements made by Sergeant Crowley, it is believable and conceivable that Dr. Gates, in his rage against the apparent “wrongful identification,” or indignation of Sergeant Crowley in not knowing whom “he is,” incited the opportunity for his legal and rightful arrest. Dr. Gates took full advantage of the sentiments shared by many uninformed members of the Black community who seek to use race as a means of protecting their own arrogance and self-serving image, which was insulted by the presence of police enforcement of law on their actions.

Oftentimes, when police encounter members of the Black community, they are subjected to verbal abuse rooted on the perceptions of injustice from a volatile history of police presence in Black communities. Though police agencies have transitioned to positive engagements within these communities in hopes of bridging this historical divide, many of the citizens have not extended similar efforts to meet police in a unified effort in strengthening and empowering community members to take responsibility for their living environment.  As police agencies have attempted to assist the Black communities in self-empowerment to alleviate crime and disorder from their neighborhoods, the greater the community resistance and distrust prevail. Consequently, police were forced to apply whatever effective policing method was required in targeting crime and extinguishing criminal elements that prey on others. 

Uniquely, minority communities are perceived to have a greater tolerance for community decay and crime within their neighborhoods, since these communities refuse to assist police in rooting out criminal elements. Police enforcement in communities that are absent a unified, defined community culture is oftentimes considered insensitive due to the enforcement style of policing employed. Thus, when members of any community are so disfranchised and fail to define a community culture with established community belief systems and enforcements, it is the responsibility of police to apply criminal enforcements as they are defined based upon crime dynamics, prevalence, and typology offenders. The Black community shares in their perceived wrongful profiling when they refuse to align their community forces with police initiatives that root out criminal offenders and activities that add to the decay, crime, and despair by harboring criminal offenders who seek continued victimization of their own communities through drugs and violence. Perceptions of wrongful police profiling will persist in these Black communities until the Black community develops a shared sense of responsibility with one another for their community and unite in a unified effort with police for community improvement and empowerment.  


Warren Dukes is assistant professor of Criminal Justice at Saint Augustine’s College, Raleigh, N.C.

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