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Neighborhood Profiling At Center Of Case Before Arizona Supreme Court

Racial profiling by law enforcement is unconstitutional, but what about neighborhood profiling?

Neighborhood profiling is now at the center of a case before the Arizona Supreme Court, State v. Primous.

“We believe that this case raised a very important issue affecting the civil rights of people here in Arizona,” said Kathy Brody, legal director of the ACLU of Arizona. She recently argued against neighborhood profiling before the state Supreme Court.

Neighborhood profiling, she said, is just like racial profiling.

“Neighborhood profiling is the use of the general characteristics of a neighborhood to make decisions about law-enforcement activity directed at individuals,” she said. “It subjects individual people to greater law-enforcement contacts and intrusions, not based on anything specific to the person who is the subject of the law-enforcement contact, but based on general characteristics of the neighborhood that the officers believe the exist.”

And, according to Kathie Barnes, associate dean of Programs and Innovation at the University of Arizona’s law school, the big issue with neighborhood profiling is that it creates a destructive cycle.

“You end up with this sort of cycle of police going into neighborhoods that they think have a lot of high crime and then sort of looking only in that neighborhood for crime and then finding some,” Barnes said. “And then the next time they look for a neighborhood that has crime, they go to the same neighborhood because that’s where they found it last time.”

So, she said, you would miss crime that might be happening in other areas where you may not be looking.

But, if you’re a police officer with a limited amount of resources, isn’t it smarter to focus on areas that have proven to have high crime? According to Barnes, it’s hard to know where the most crime happens; you just know where you find the most crime because that’s where you’re looking.

But, she said, officers are really in a tough spot sometimes.

“Police departments will argue, correctly, that they are also being asked to be in places where there is sort of high crime,” Barnes said. “And there’s a balance between providing extra police support to where there are crimes, where more crimes are happening, and, sort of, profiling or going beyond just that and targeting communities in more negative ways.”

In the State v. Primous, a man named Anthony Primous was sitting outside an apartment complex in Phoenix with a group of people, when police officers showed up with a federal warrant, searching for a suspect. When they came, one of the men Primous was sitting with ran away. Then, the officers searched Primous and found marijuana in his pocket.

Brody recently argued that that was an unlawful search based on neighborhood profiling in an amicus brief before the state Supreme Court.

Another major problem with this type of profiling, she said, is that it disproportionately affects minorities.

And, “it leads to this over-policing of certain neighborhoods and populations, which has not just a bad effect on the individuals in that neighborhood, but on the greater community and on society as a whole,” Brody said.

The Arizona Attorney General’s Office said they could not comment on this case.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.