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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: Two Problems with Profiling

Friday, February 18, 2011

Two Problems with Profiling

Profiling is a method of observing characteristics, actions and circumstances to draw conclusions about a person.  It is a useful tool that we all use every day.  Doctors build health profiles based on age, weight, race, sex and personal habits such as drinking and smoking.  Amazon books uses profiling to suggest books you might be interested in based on past purchases and current browsing. 

Profiling becomes controversial when race is one of the observed characteristics or when the profiler can legally use coercion on the profiled even when the profiled characteristic is statistically based.  Suppose Officer Holmes of the Arcadia Police Department observes that drug use has crept into his normally peaceful jurisdiction.  He travels to Gotham and notes that four times as many Hispanic males are arrested on drug charges than Asian males.  Based on that observation, he focuses his time and other police resources on Hispanic males to reduce drug related crime.  The problem could be one of reverse causality.  Perhaps more Hispanic males were arrested in the past because the police harbor prejudices against Hispanic males.  They are arrested more frequently because they are investigated more frequently.

Now assume that Officer Holmes has read scientifically conducted research based on surveys that finds that 12% of Hispanic males acknowledge illegal drug compared to 3% of Asian males.  He is scientifically justified in using race as a profiling characteristic, but problems remain.  In the course of his work, using race, sex, location and other behaviors to profile potential drug users, he observes 1,000 Hispanic males.  Of these, he stops and questions 270, and of these, he arrests and charges 60 with a drug related crime and all are convicted.  The remaining 210 Hispanic males were innocent and while they were only stopped and questioned, may resent Holmes’ behavior and grow to distrust the police.

Profiling becomes more objectionable as the ability to correctly identify offenders decreases and the level of coercion increases.  On January 8, 2011, Jared Loughner made himself notorious by killing six and wounding twelve in a failed assassination attempt of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.  Some called for more stringent gun control.  Second Amendment supporters and gun owners argued that it would be wrong to inconvenience many gun owners for the actions of a single deranged man.  Others noting that friends, family, students and teachers had observed Loughner’s erratic behavior and on several occasions had called the police for assistance suggest that a stronger enforcement mechanism be developed to help youths with mental disorders and protect the public.

Let’s say that Arizona imposes a new law that that allows authorities to medicate youths profiled by behavioral characteristics as potentially violent.  Assume that researchers followed the behavior of 10,000 young adults and one in a thousand (10 young adults in our sample) have a disorder that will lead to acts of violence.  Now assume that we implement a system that correctly identifies 80% of those with potentially violent mental disorders (8 of the ten potentially violent young adults are identified.  Two are not.).  But there is a tradeoff.   In our example, there are 9,990 young adults who are not potentially violent yet one time in a hundred, or 99.9 times a young adult will be wrongly identified as being potentially violent and subject to forced mediation.  Is catching 8 of 10 potentially violent worth the cost of forcefully medicating nearly 100 who are not?  If this tradeoff is too high, how many wrongful forced medications will you tolerate to stop the violence these youths will cause?


  1. Alicia Castro(macroeconomis student)22/2/11 4:27 PM

    I believe that this topic involves incentives. On Principles of Macroeconomics written by N. Gregory Mankiw, he states that incentives are “something that induces a person to act”. I therefore believe that the increasing crime rate has caused many police officers to act upon what they think is the core problem of the entire situation.
    Externality, which can be described as “the impact of one person’s actions on the well-being of a by- stander”, can also be used to help explain this topic. The high risk of possibly medicating over a 100 innocent people who do not suffer from disabilities that could potentially lead to violence, is just another trade of that must be made to actually help those who need it.

  2. M. Kittner (macroeconomics student)

    The best way to look at the topics above is to look at them with the trade-offs in mind. What will one get if I do this to the other? For instance; when Officer Holmes questioned Hispanic males only 60 out of the 270 questioned were guilty. Thus leading to 210 men possibly angry or emotionally hurt by Officer Holmes' questioning. They could take there anger out though violent or illegal ways, giving Officer Holmes a trade-off he was not looking for.
    Look at the trade-offs for medicating youth who have been profiled for violent behavior. By medicating them you are keeping them from creating violent acts in the future; however, what if they chose not to take the medication and continued to be nonviolent? Would they HAVE TO take it, because of the possibility of them becoming violent, or do they have the choice. The trade-off for this event would be that violence among youth was subdued, but their trust in the government might be lost, because they are forced to do something they may not want to do.

  3. Belinda Gonzales(macroeconimcs student)23/2/11 10:09 PM

    I agree and understand where the concerns and issues come from. When seeing someone become a harm to those innocent gives others to think one must be treated becasue of what is around. One man nonviolent but of the same race of one who is seems to pay the price as the other. I think it is unfair for one to suffer for what they have not done. When i read the blog it make me think of "how we analyze various types of government policy using only the tools of supply and demand" from the book written by N. Gregory Mankiw. What it means is that the way the government analyzes the information given to the people and the demand of drugs the males want.

  4. Danielle Richter - Macroeconomics25/2/11 9:48 AM

    I agree with the trade off situtions the other students were mentioning. However people have to think about the oppurtunity cost that one person would have to have in order to reduced the violence in young adults. If one of the people who are profiled to have violent behavior does not have the behavior, then they would have had to give up time they could of used on something else in order to be tested.

  5. Stephanie Tunches1/3/11 7:08 PM

    I'm indifferent about forcing someone to take medication if they have been wrongly identified. It can be dangerous to that person's health to take medication that is not needed, yet it is also helping the community to get 8 out of 10 people the help that they need. I agree with another student that the trade off would be that the violence would be lessened, but there may be lost trust for the government.

  6. I think profiling for drug use is completely different than mandatory medication. I believe profiling is a useful tool if used correctly. With the drug use case, you might be pulled over and lose a few minutes, however being medicated can be life changing.

    police are understaffed as it is, I think they should do what is neccessary for them to focus their resources where it needs to be focused. If the police in my neighborhood want to crack down on crime and profiling means I get pulled over a little more often to be questioned, but it noticeably reduces crime thats fine by me. As long as it doent get to the point of harrasment.

    I cannot support mandatory medication until someone does something wrong. This could be a life changing event that should not be taken lightly. Maybe if the odds were 1 in 10,000 it might be justifiable, but not 2 in 10.

  7. Julisa Bena20/3/11 7:00 PM

    Profiling as this blog mentions can have its benifits, but racial profiling is just wrong in so many ways. If a police officer for example spends all of their time looking at just one paticular race they can in fact be posibly missing people who are actually doing the crimes, but the officers have allowed themselves to have a one track mind about certain races. Some have a good human capital. Would it be fare to judge these people based on race?