New California law aims to combat racial profiling by police: it sounds good, but will it create any change?

By Jason Raylesberg
Associate Editor, Vol. 21

California and Missouri recently instituted separate measures to curb racial profiling within the legal system. In response to widespread police brutality nationally, California passed the “Racial and Identity Profiling Act of 2015,” requiring police officers to record identity characteristics, i.e. race, gender, or national origin of those they arrest as well as the reasons for arresting them. Meanwhile, partly in response to the controversial, highly publicized exoneration of Darren Wilson, the Missouri Supreme Court established a commission to determine ways to ensure fair treatment of minorities in the civil and criminal justice system. It is obvious that racial and identity profiling exists within the legal system, but while the Missouri Supreme Court commission proceeds from this premise to developing real solutions, the California law seeks to unnecessarily prove the same premise by mandating a burdensome data-collection process. California should follow the Missouri Supreme Court’s lead and begin developing solutions to problems that a multi-year data collection process need not prove exist.

The California law will provide the newly created Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board (RIPA) with data that will be used to “investigate and analyze state and local law enforcement agencies’ racial and identity profiling policies and practices across geographic areas in California.” Police officers will record seven pieces of information after each encounter, including the perceived race, ethnicity or gender of the person stopped, the result of the stop, and their actions during the stop. Many California police officers criticize this law, claiming that it will manifest as unnecessary paperwork that, in practice, will not lead to substantive change. Los Angeles police union president Craig Lally told the Huffington Post “this is a joke. All of this money is going to be wasted and it’s not going to prove anything, I guarantee you that. If an officer has probable cause to make a stop, there’s absolutely no way you can prove racial profiling unless you get into that officer’s head.”

To a large extent, Lally is right. This law nobly attempts to tackle one of the country’s most pressing problems, but it does so only in name and via ineffective, burdensome means. In reality, we know what the results, albeit unspecific, of this investigation are going to be: minorities, especially African Americans, are disproportionately arrested by police; they are arrested most often in high-crime, low-income areas; some of these arrests are motivated by blatant racism, some by more subtle racism, and some by neither. This law will burden officers with administrative tasks amounting to little more than busywork not taken seriously. Such an initiative could in fact backfire on the state – as officers focus more attention on analyzing individual motives behind arrests, they may naturally divert attention away from securing the physical safety of patrol areas. Officers may also arrest more non-minorities in a blind effort to fill a quota, analogous to officers recording a higher frequency of traffic incident reports near the ends of quota periods.

Following the Missouri Supreme Court’s lead, the California legislature must operate from the premise that identity discrimination compromises the fairness of the justice system, and focus on implementing proven solutions that more effectively hold officers accountable. Perhaps California’s best solution is to direct state funds toward the wider provision of body cameras for the police force. California has already proven such an initiative does lead to real, substantive change. A recent Huffington Post article discussed how California’s implementation of body police cameras significantly reduced the number of violent incidents between civilians and police. Simply being aware that one’s activity will be recorded can regulate behavior, and body cameras accomplish this without being burdensome to execute. In any event, states must be careful to pass legislation that combats racial profiling not only in name, but also in substance. To do otherwise might satisfy some people in the immediate short-term, but it will not spark the meaningful, transformative change this country needs, on the timeline that it needs it.