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Bias-Based Policing: A Felony in Some States

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By Michael Beshears, professor of criminal justice at American Military University

Individuals typically cannot define exactly what constitutes bias-based policing. Bias-based policing is often misinterpreted as pertaining to just racial profiling. However, bias-based policing not only encompasses race and ethnicity, but it also includes gender, sexual orientation, economic status, religious beliefs, and age.

Simply put, bias-based policing is the intentional practice by an individual law enforcement officer who incorporates prejudicial judgments based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, religious beliefs, or age that are inappropriately applied in the performance of his/her duties.

Racism and sexism garbageBias-based policing includes gender bias, where an officer would not—or would seldom—give a female driver a traffic ticket. Then there are instances in which officers will not ticket another police officer for speeding. Some officers display economic bias, where a person who appears unable to afford a ticket is let off with a warning, while someone else who appears more affluent is ticketed. The same holds true for age, where an older person is not ticketed but a teenager is ticketed.

Efforts to Eliminate Bias-Based Policing
Police agencies are attempting to curtail bias-based policing. For example, Texas passed legislation mandating that every police agency within the state keep statistics on traffic stops. New Jersey has gone as far as making bias-based policing by a law enforcement officer a felony. The New Jersey law created the crime of official deprivation of civil rights in an effort to curtail bias-based policing. The law makes it illegal for a law enforcement officer to use race, color, religion, ethnicity, handicap, gender, age, or sexual orientation to discriminate against any individual.

Minnesota, Kansas, Maryland, and other states have enacted similar legislation that makes bias-based policing illegal and in some instances, a felony. It should be further noted that racial profiling was banned via a Justice Department policy pertaining to federal law enforcement agencies, except in cases that involve identification of possible terrorism suspects. However, it is rare that a federal law enforcement agency would perform traffic stops.

Some may suggest that identification of bias-based policing practices is made more complex by case law. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit investigatory stops as long as the facts and circumstances lead to a reasonable suspicion that the driver is engaged in criminal activity (United States v. Arvizu, 2003).

The language that is often criticized in the ruling is the phrase: “reasonable suspicion.” The argument to be made is that by permitting an officer to stop a vehicle for “any reason” promotes bias-based policing, specifically racial profiling. Of course, a candid look at police stops would also bring about discussion concerning various other police patrol procedures in relation to bias-based policing like compliance stops, as well as patrol deployment patterns.

Has your department addressed this issue? What kind of training have you received regarding bias-based policing?

About the Author: Michael L. Beshears has two B.S. degrees, one in psychology and another in criminal justice from Drury University. He also has two graduate degrees, a M.S. in criminology from Indiana State University and a M.A. in health services management from Webster University. Mike is a retired senior noncommissioned Officer in the U.S. Army. His 22-year career includes work with the Special Forces, as well as assisting other agencies in their performance of criminal investigations. He has an extensive background in emergency medicine and intensive care medical treatment, as a Special Forces medic, emergency medical technician and licensed practical nurse. As a lifelong learner, he is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in business with a concentration in criminal justice. He has three grown beautiful daughters Michele, Cora and Mollye. He resides with his wife Michelle and their son Hunter, and daughter Malia near Norfork and Bull Shoals Lakes in Clarkridge, Arkansas. Mike is currently an assistant Professor of criminal justice at American Military University & American Public University and is full-time faculty in the School of Public Service & Health. You can contact him at michael.beshears(at)mycampus.apus.edu.

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