Abstract: Police profiling is the use in police-actions of statistical generalizations to target offenders. Empirical evidence suggests that such practices are widespread, both in their more conscious policy-based forms and in practices shaped by unconscious and/or unspoken assumptions and prejudices. I examine the moral status of profiling as a variant of discrimination, and argue that although this does not make it intrinsically wrong, the question of determining its moral status is more complicated than might first appear. First because the assessment of whether and when profiling is morally wrong basically turns on the same justifications as those applying to police-actions more broadly, but these are themselves very hard to assess. Secondly because profiling involves added complications both in properly applying the optimally efficient set of proxies and in determining the costs resulting from discrimination. In conclusion, I advocate a principle of caution, which at once recognizes that profiling is an intrinsic element of policing and that it requires special care when dealing with socially salient proxies.
Frej Klem Thomsen works mainly in political philosophy, normative and applied ethics. He has a background in Philosophy and Cultural Studies, and has previously done (some) work on citizenship, cosmopolitanism, human rights and normative democratic theory. He is currently working on the topic of discrimination, particularly discrimination within the criminal justice system, including such issues as police profiling, sentencing and equality before the law. He is visiting Oxford and the Uehiro Centre for Hilary and Trinity 2010, during which the main research questions on his agenda will be 1) whether the normative concept of discrimination ought to include a group criterion, i.e. a limitation of discrimination as applying only to specific types of groups, 2) the circumstances under which police profiling is and is not justified, and 3) what, exactly, makes discrimination morally wrong when it is morally wrong.