Recently, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton backed new criminal justice reform policies by endorsing legislation that would ban racial profiling by law enforcement. If enacted, this legislation would prohibit any law enforcement officer from relying on race when making routine stops or a “spontaneous investigative activity” unless there’s information linking the person to a crime, according to a campaign aide.
Racial Profiling and Targeted Violence Prevention
As a threat assessment professional, it is not my place to weigh in on racial profiling. On this matter, I defer to my friend and Hillard Heintze colleague Marcia Thompson, a nationally recognized attorney and equal employment opportunity (EEO)/civil rights professional and an expert on criminal justice, collaborative reform and community-oriented policing.
Instead, I want to highlight the futility of using racial profiling as a strategy to help determine if a person has the interest, motive or means to mount an attack against another individual.
Historically, much has been written about profiling in targeted violence cases such as assassinations and school shootings, but in reality there is no accurate descriptive or demographic profile of assassins, attackers and near-lethal approachers. Using racial profiling to prevent targeted violence such as assassinations and school shootings does not work and can have tragic consequences if engaged as part of a preventive methodology.
Two Prominent Examples: Racial Profiling Failures
- The misuse of profiles in threat assessment and targeted violence prevention dates back to the 1960s. In the aftermath of the 1968 assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, a presidential commission on violence stated that “an assassin would be a white male, of European descent, and a loner, with abnormality.” Neither Sara Jane Moore nor Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, however, fit that profile. In 1975, they became the only two women who have attempted to assassinate an American President, with separate and unrelated attacks on Gerald Ford in California within three weeks of one another.
- More recently, after the Columbine school shootings, many educators and law enforcement professionals initially profiled potential school shooters as white males who were loners wearing black tee shirts and trench coats. This profile stigmatized many students who had no intention of committing acts of violence – and it flew in the face of established protocols in threat assessment history.
For example, in 1975, Nathaniel Brazil, a then 13-year old African American student shot and killed Barry Grunow, a popular teacher at Lake Worth Middle School in Florida. Brazill was an honor student, described by teachers as mild mannered and likeable. Grunow was his favorite teacher.
Behavioral Threat Assessment Is Racially Neutral – and Constitutional
Thanks to the empirical research conducted by the U.S. Secret Service in the 1990s on assassination and school shootings, we now know that there is no accurate or useful “profile” of persons who engage in targeted violence. However, we do know that attackers often engage in many of the same behaviors and actions before their attacks. Mounting an attack requires a number of preparatory decisions and activities — attack-related behaviors.
- For instance, a potential assassin must choose a target, learn where the target is going to be, choose and secure a weapon, survey security, develop an attack plan and consider whether and how to escape.
- Our job as threat assessment professionals seeking to prevent acts associated with stalking, domestic violence and workplace violence is to disrupt that pathway to attack by examining the thinking and behavior of those concerning persons who come to our clients’ attention.
Our behavior-based methodology is not only racially neutral and constitutionally acceptable, but also truly the most effective method of preventing the terrible acts of targeted violence that continue to have devastating impacts across our communities.
 National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. 1969
 Fein, R. & Vossekuil, B. Protective Intelligence and Threat Assessment Investigations: A Guide for State and Local Law Enforcement Officials. U. S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice: Washington, D. C. (July 1998).