Profiles in Profiling

Stop That Troll! Pull Over That Nutritionist!


 Published in the Sunday New York Times on January 2, 2000

 Profiling—the state police practice of stopping motorists suspected of criminal activity based on their race—is back in the news. Last week, New Jersey agreed to let an independent federal monitor oversee its efforts to reform the practice. Less noticed though, was when State Superior Court Judge Theodore Bozonelis ruled in the fall that the attorney general’s report declaring that profiling exists applied not only to actions on the New Jersey Turnpike, but off it as well.

Which leads one to wonder: how widespread is profiling? Have profiles been created only for the most serious laws, like those against drug trafficking and possession? Or does profiling extend to lesser-known laws on the books in New Jersey? If it does, what might the profiles for those other laws look like?

For example, you probably didn’t know that it’s against the law in New Jersey to “frown” at a police officer. Criminals would certainly fit the profile of likely offenders. But others who might include nutritionists, grammarians and fashion designers.

Or take the law that prevents us from pumping our own gas. I imagine that the profile of a person who would violate this law is a Lexus LS-400 owner, who does not want flammable liquid pumped into his $60,000 treasure by a 16 year-old whose main goal is returning to the attendant’s booth so he can hang out with his entire sophomore class.

What about the law that makes it illegal to park under a highway bridge? The profile here is likely to be of a mythological character, such as a troll or long-haul truck driver who obeys the speed limit.

Or the law that says you may never again apply for personalized license plates if you have been convicted of drunken driving. This profile is dominated by frat boys and United States Senators who have been elected to more than 20 terms in office. (Tip: you can get around this by legally changing your name to your current license plate number.)

Lest you think that dumb laws are the exclusive province of state government, I call your attention to the law in Manville that makes it illegal to feed whiskey or offer cigarettes to animals at the local zoo. Here the profile is obvious: trial lawyers, who would feed the animals, then turn around and sue the tobacco and alcohol industries, claiming that the animals were unable to read the warning labels.

Then there’s the law that says you can’t slurp your soup in Ocean City. I doubt this is the kind of law John Locke had in mind when he formulated his Second Treatise of Government. Fortunately, the population of soup slurpers tends to be limited to small children and fans of the old Abbott and Costello soup routine. The latter are exempt from this law if their soup contains a live amphibian that surfaces and squirts broth in their face each time their partner looks away.

Finally, there’s the law in Creskill against parking a boat on your lawn. Typical profile: Perot voters.

In truth, I really don’t know how many or what kinds of profiles are buried in the files of the New Jersey State Police. Nor do I know what kind of unwritten profiles are carried around in the heads and hearts of our troopers. But I do know that because profiling is such a powerful tool, its potential for abuse is correspondingly great. The world needs fewer profiles and that means we’ve got to stop passing so many laws. For that, we will need to change the profile of the people we elect to public office.