Last week, the Obama administration announced new curbs on racial profiling by federal law enforcement. Before deciding whether this is good or bad policy, we might try to develop a description/definition of racial profiling or any other kind of profiling.

A good definition of profiling in general is the use of an easily observed physical characteristic as a guess for some other, difficult-to-observe characteristic. The reason people profile is that information is costly and they seek methods to economize on information costs. One way to do that is through profiling.

Imagine a chief of police in a city where there has been a rash of automobile hubcap thefts and he’s trying to capture the culprits. Should he have his officers stake out and investigate residents of senior citizen homes? What about spending resources investigating men and women 40 or older? I would imagine that he would have greater success in capturing the culprits by focusing most of his resources on younger people — and particularly on young men. Doing so would more likely lead to the capture of the culprits because hubcap theft is a young man’s game. My question to you is whether you’d bring charges against the police chief because he used age and sex profiling — and didn’t investigate seniors and middle-aged adults.

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