Assessing Racial Profiling by the Police: Overcoming Methodological Problems

Geoffrey Alpert, University of South Carolina
Roger Dunham, University of Miami
Michael R. Smith, Washington State University - Spokane

ABSTRACT
Police departments across the country have come under rather severe scrutiny for racial profiling during traffic stops and searches of citizens. As a result of increasing concern over profiling expressed by citizen's groups, especially minorities, a number of studies are currently attempting to assess the extent and nature of racial profiling throughout numerous police jurisdictions. However, profiling researchers have encountered a variety of serious methodological problems that have critics questioning the validity of research findings. This paper provides a discussion of the difficult methodological problems facing profiling researchers, including geographical sampling of areas to be studied, obtaining baseline data for comparisons with stops and searchers, overcoming officer resistance to being observed, minimizing study effects on officers, developing reliability and validity checks of data to insure adequate quality, the collection of stop and search data, assessing contextual effects of neighborhood characteristics, and estimating public attitudes toward racial profiling and citizen victimization. This paper discusses the methodological problems and workable solutions based upon research strategies employed in first generation racial profiling studies and a study currently underway in Miami-Dade County, Florida which employs diverse sources of data and multiple methodologies to allow empirical assessments of divergent research strategies. Findings indicate the inadequacy of many typical methodologies and the availability of some surprisngly efficient alternatives.

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Updated 05/20/2006