Following the death of George Floyd this past summer, many people are discussing police reform and racial profiling. Rhetoric of increasing racial profiling training, even defunding police departments entirely has flooded our news feeds and conversations. Many took to the streets to protest police brutality, while others fought with loved ones over “backing the blue.”
But for Dr. Alex del Carmen, these tough conversations have been a normal part of life for 20 years.
A first generation immigrant from Nicaragua, Dr. del Carmen lived through the late ’70s civil war, when his birth country was under a communist regime. That experience sparked his interest in understanding “what made people do really awful things to others.”
After coming to the U.S. at age 14, he earned a criminology Ph.D at Florida State University. He has lived in Texas for 24 years and began volunteering at the Arlington Police Department. There, he reviewed data on disparity-related research regarding minorities.
“Once I became a criminologist, and I came to Texas, I realized that the way people treat you oftentimes is associated with your color of skin or background,” del Carmen said. “And so I was always fascinated by trying to understand what made some people, not all people, but some people, treat others inferior to them because they perceived them as being less than because of their color of skin.”
In 2001, when Texas passed a new racial profiling law, the executive director of the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas, part of Sam Houston State University, called on him to train Texas police chiefs on the new law.
Today, Dr. del Carmen is the Associate Dean of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Tarleton State University. He is also an authority on racial profiling in law enforcement. Since 2001, he has trained every Texas police chief and 15,000 police officers throughout the state on racial profiling. He has also developed a template on racial profiling data reporting for the entire state and worked as a federal monitor on police reform cases in New Orleans and Puerto Rico. Recently, he became a Fulbright Specialist, which means the U.S. Department of State is sending him to the Czech Republic to train police officers there.
Below are some key things you can learn about racial profiling and police reform from Dr. del Carmen.
How Does The Racial Profiling Template Work?
Let’s back up a bit and first define what racial profiling is. According to the ACLU, racial profiling is when law enforcement officers target certain individuals for suspicion of crime based on the person’s race, ethnicity, religion or national origin. Some examples of racial profiling are using race to choose which drivers to stop for minor traffic violations or using race to pick which individuals to search for illegal contraband.
In order to take a scientific, data-based approach to ensure officers don’t practice racial profiling, del Carmen developed the racial profiling data reporting template for Texas law enforcement agencies. The template was born out of the Texas law that requires law enforcement officers to report data on who they issue citations to, who they search, the nature of those searches, etc. Law enforcement officers also must have a policy in place and train their officers on racial profiling.
Texas law enforcement agencies report the data to their city council and Texas Commission on Law Enforcement every year. And any time a police officer issues a ticket, citation or warning, they have to inform the public. This is all done to ensure that police officers aren’t explicitly or implicitly targeting people of color.
“At the end of the day, it is very involved, and we have multiple levels of requirements,” del Carmen said. “And every city in the state of Texas, every municipality, they have to in fact enforce that and keep that in place throughout the year.”
How Are Texas Police Chiefs Trained on Racial Profiling?
Texas’ law on racial profiling is highly complex, which is why they need Dr. del Carmen to help. Specifically, he trains the chiefs on racial profiling compliance to make sure they understand how to prevent racial profiling. He conducts six-and-a-half hour training sessions with police chiefs about three times a year in-person. He also trains police officers, which vary in length and frequency.
Dr. del Carmen also trains the chiefs on “CompStat,” a computer statistical analysis of data related to crime patterns in a city. He also trains them on the appropriate level of force to use. Another part of the training focuses on implicit biases, “which is the idea that we all have biases that are implicit within us,” del Carmen says.
“The idea is to try to inform police officers so that they can have a more scientific approach to fighting crime,” del Carmen said. “It’s important to recognize what those biases are, particularly somebody that has the responsibility of being a police officer that wears a badge and has that type of responsibility.”
Has There Been a Rise in Black Americans Dying at Hands of Police?
Throughout the last few years, it could easily seem like officer-involved shootings of Black Americans are rising. But has there actually been a rise in these types of killings? Or have the cases just received more media attention? Dr. del Carmen says it’s “perhaps a little bit of both.”
“I think that the media attention that’s being given, obviously, has highlighted some of the issues that many of us have been for years focused on,” del Carmen said.
Dr. del Carmen explains that we have no way of truly knowing whether the number of Black Americans killed at the hands of police has risen to a historically high level. For example, del Carmen said the murder of Black Americans during the slave trade, slavery years and the Jim Crow era was probably skyrocketing. But the U.S. never kept an official count, and only estimates can be made.
“I would argue that it seems, to me, that the number of cases that are questionable, that have a video component in them that illustrates a killing of an African-American individual, they seem to be on the rise and particularly in the media coverage that we’ve seen in the past couple of years,” del Carmen said.
Should We Defund the Police?
“Yeah, I don’t agree with that,” del Carmen said. “I think that if a police department is in need of help, the last thing that we need to do is take away their funding. It’s kinda like having a child that needs help. The last thing that you want to do is punish the child instead of rendering a helping hand.”
But del Carmen thinks the meaning of defunding the police got “lost in translation,” as he put it. He believes that, initially, the idea was to decrease or control police funding in certain areas. However, the idea of taking away police funding completely or leaving it at minimum amounts is “horrible,” he says. Dr. del Carmen said doing this would prevent good police departments from excelling and from hiring the best officer candidates.
Dr. del Carmen said the academic study of policing is as old as the U.S. itself. Understanding police should be studied and looked at from an academic and scientific perspective.
“I’ve always argued that part of the problem that we’re facing now is that we are looking at these policing challenges as matters of politics instead of being a scientific matter,” del Carmen said.
Update 4/28/21: In a previous version of this article we referred to Dr. del Carmen incorrectly as Dr. Carmen. His correct title is not executive director, but is associate dean. We apologize for the errors.