Profiles in suspicion: A book’s cover does tell you something

by Robert Woolley

I just finished reading your long story on burglary in Asheville (“Home Sweet Target,” July 2 Xpress). What stood out most for me, because of its unexpectedness, was the caution against profiling from Sean Davis, identified in the story as a “community resource officer” for the Asheville Police Department. You quote him as saying, “In no way does race, gender, sexual orientation or religion make an individual suspicious.” This was in the context of advising citizens to be vigilant for suspicious activity in their neighborhoods.

I’m not sure why Mr. Davis included “sexual orientation” and “religion” in this list, since those are characteristics one can’t usually discern by briefly watching the actions of a stranger on the block, so I’ll set those aside.

But it flies in the face of reality to pretend that every individual is equally likely to have nefarious motives for unusual behavior. If a face I don’t recognize is looking into a neighbor’s window, my level of suspicion that a crime is afoot will be different if that face belongs to a young adult black male than if it belongs to an elderly white female. And yours would be, too, no matter how deeply you are steeped in the dictates of modern political correctness.

It is objectively false to say or imply that observable demographic characteristics tell us absolutely nothing about the probability of an individual’s criminal intent, when they are seen behaving suspiciously. Age, sex and race are all statistically strong correlates of the likelihood of criminal behavior.

To use just the most convenient example — freely admitting that it is purely anecdotal — consider the four people named in your story as having been arrested for the string of burglaries that formed the story’s hook. Google their names and you’ll quickly find news reports featuring their mug shots. All four are males. All are young adults (ages 17 to 26). Three of them are black, one white.

Does that small sample come anywhere close to matching the probable demographic breakdown of four randomly selected Ashevilleans? Of course not. Convicted criminals, as a group, and those arrested for crimes, as a group, simply do not form representative samples of the general population on any variable you care to analyze.

If we looked at all of those convicted of burglary in Asheville over, say, the past 10 years, would the demographic profile of that group more closely match that of these four suspects or that of the city as a whole? Surely no thoughtful person can doubt that the answer would be the former. Naturally, one would expect the convicts to include both sexes, a range of ages and a racial spectrum. But would it be heavily skewed toward young adult males? Without question. Would it also be racially skewed in a way that cuts against the grain of Asheville’s general populace? Almost surely.

Those facts remain even if you account for part of the demographic differences by assuming — with good reason — that young black men are more likely to be arrested and convicted than other people of equal guilt but different appearance.

It is an uncomfortable, unpleasant, ugly fact that young men commit crimes at higher rates than women or older men, and that even within that group racial minorities are disproportionately represented. I think all right-minded people share my wish that it were not so and hope that some day it will not be so.

But in the here and now, it blinkers reality to assert that basic demographic variables observable at a glance contribute nothing at all to a rational assessment of whether an individual’s conduct is best interpreted as sufficiently suspicious to warrant phoning the police. We do have to make such judgment calls, after all, unless we are going to either ignore every stranger to the neighborhood or drop a dime on every unfamiliar passer-by.

I don’t have any pat answers for exactly how one should weigh demographic information in making that decision in any given set of circumstances. But it can form some rational part of the equation, even in a person who harbors no personal animus toward males, young adults or racial minorities.

That Mr. Davis would assert otherwise suggests to me that he is more concerned with being inoffensive than being helpful to the citizens he is charged with advising on such matters.

Robert Woolley lives in Asheville.

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2 thoughts on “Profiles in suspicion: A book’s cover does tell you something

  1. ronj1955

    Mr. Wooley could have reduced his longwinded argument for racial profiling to this sentence. Those words would be: I’m not racist, but I do think young black men are criminals, therefore whatever actions I take when I see a young black man in my neighborhood has nothing to do with the fact that I’m not racist.

    In other words, he thinks that by denying the racism of his assumptions, his opinion is not racist. Sorry, bud, but it doesn’t work that way. The Mountain Xpress should be ashamed for running this opinion piece. Giving a forum to essentially racist views only encourages those who find no fault with such opinions.

  2. Damn, Robert Woolley. What the hell is wrong with you? Did you actually look at any statistics before you wrote this? Did you not consider that black guys get caught more often even though they aren’t any more criminal than white people? And the reason is because white people are always calling the cops on them because they are people like you? When you say, “right minded,” I think what you mean is extreme right wing.

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