Campus & Community

Schauer: Profiling can be a useful investigative tool

6 min read

Sharpen profiles, don't discard them

Frederick Schauer contends that profiling, i.e., 'narrowing the field of investigation on the basis of a set of probabilistic traits is a common and unavoidable police practice.' (Staff photo Jon Chase/Harvard News Office)

In the 1980s, after a rash of attacks by pit bull terriers on children and adults as well as on other dogs, many municipalities passed ordinances making it illegal to own pit bulls.

Many pit bull owners protested these measures, claiming that it was prejudicial and unjust to stigmatize their presumably good-natured dogs because of the behavior of a vicious few. Some said their dogs were being victimized by what amounted to canine racism and that they were no more likely to act aggressively than any other breed.

Frederick Schauer disagrees. Statistics show that certain dog breeds – pit bulls among them – are more likely to attack people and other dogs, and that, he contends, makes it reasonable to single out those breeds when formulating laws to promote public safety.

Schauer’s new book, “Profiles, Probabilities, and Stereotypes” (Harvard University Press, 2003) takes on a spectrum of issues that have become increasingly urgent in the post-9/11 world. To what extent is it legitimate to use stereotyping as a tool in crime prevention or the forging of public policy? Schauer, the Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment at the Kennedy School of Government, admits that he is in a minority among legal and policy thinkers in contending that stereotyping isn’t always bad.

“The book cuts across the grain of the contemporary view, that it is always better to make decisions on an individual basis. I argue that all of us use profiling and stereotyping, that using such generalizations is an inevitable part of our thinking process, and that profiling and stereotyping are not always to be condemned.”

In the book, Schauer analyzes a wide variety of cases, distinguishing between profiling in which a certain characteristic is demonstrably predictive of a certain type of behavior (as in the pit bull example) and cases in which the connection is spurious (Schauer, obviously not a believer in astrology, uses the example “Capricorns are self-confident”).

But what about the use of profiling to single out members of a particular race, ethnicity, or religion, subjecting Arabs or Muslims to extra scrutiny at airports, for example?

Schauer characterizes two common attitudes toward racial profiling, both of which he believes are mistaken. One is to assert that race and ethnicity never have statistical relevance and should therefore be ignored. The other is to insist that whenever profiling is statistically relevant it must be used for the good of society even at the expense of other values.

According to Schauer, people of Middle Eastern background may be more likely to be terrorists than, say, people from Sweden, but their ethnicity is only one predictor of their behavior, and sometimes not a very significant one. Other factors that airport authorities should and often do look at are whether a given passenger paid for a ticket with cash or a credit card; whether he or she is flying round-trip or one way; whether the passenger bought the ticket through an agent, bought it in advance or at the last minute, belongs to a frequent-flyer club, has little or no luggage, or appears to be nervous.

If people of Middle Eastern background are being targeted more than others, it may only be because of the use of ethnicity as part of a reliable profile, but also, and less justifiably, because the physical characteristics that set them apart are easier to spot than some of these other factors, Schauer said.

“For example, suppose you saw two men on an airplane – one was a young Middle Eastern man and the other was a young man of northern European ethnicity who happened to have been just released from prison for an explosives conviction and who belonged to a right-wing militia. The second man would probably be the more dangerous one, but the factors that made him dangerous would not be as visibly apparent.”

Schauer believes profiling that is based on valid statistical evidence and that looks at multiple factors to ascertain whether a person is a likely suspect often has a legitimate place in law enforcement and policy-making. He thinks that such fact-based generalizations may be fairer than trusting the judgment of individuals who when authorized to look at each person individually may act on the basis of far less reliable predictors.

“Generalization disempowers individual discretion when discretion is not to be trusted,” he said.

Incidents where law enforcement officials focus inordinately on individuals of a particular group – for example, some cases in which customs officials have been accused of stopping black travelers more than others – are sometimes the result of simple racial hostility on the part of particular officers, not the use of a validly predictive profile to screen potential criminals. In fact, Schauer does not believe that such behavior should even be called profiling. He would prefer to designate it as “targeting” or simply “hassling.” It is wrong, not because it is profiling, but because it is statistically unsupported and prejudicial.

Profiling, applied fairly and systematically, is an indispensable tool of police work as old as Sherlock Holmes.

“Narrowing the field of investigation on the basis of a set of probabilistic traits is a common and unavoidable police practice,” Schauer said.

Schauer makes this point in the book by discussing the work of profilers like psychiatrist James Brussel, who was chiefly responsible for catching New York City’s “Mad Bomber” in the 1950s. Based on analysis of available pieces of evidence, Brussel was able to create a profile of the bomber that turned out to be accurate down to his religion, ethnic background, family life, and mode of dress.

“If I can get people to recognize that there are good and bad stereotypes and good and bad profiles and that not all profiles and not all stereotypes are to be condemned, I’ll have made some progress,” Schauer said.