The Right Way to Profile
How well-trained police officers could have spotted and stopped the Tsarnaevs before they set off their bombs.
May 29, 2013 - 12:30 am
Join me, if you will, in a bit of counterfactual history. It is the morning of April 15, the day of the Boston Marathon. At around 2 p.m., long after the fastest of the runners have finished the race, the Tsarnaev brothers are making their way down Boylston Street toward the area of the finish line.
As the brothers weave through the crowd, police K-9 teams are completing a bomb sweep of the area, using police dogs to sniff for explosives in trash cans, newspaper racks, and anything else that might be used to conceal a destructive device. It is the second such search of the day.
The Tsarnaevs, like a number of people nearby, stand and watch as the dogs and their handlers complete their work. But unlike the others, who are merely curious at the sight, and who resume watching the race or passing this way or that after the police finish their task, the Tsarnaevs pay particular attention to the K-9 teams and their movements. This is noted by an undercover officer who has been posted in the area.
“I’ve got two subjects,” the officer says into a concealed microphone attached to his radio, “male whites, both carrying backpacks.” He then goes on to describe them further, using the standard police practice of detailing the subjects’ attire from the head down. “Number one, twenties, dark baseball hat, dark jacket, light-colored pants. Number two, late teens, white baseball hat, dark jacket and pants. Both have dark-colored backpacks. Boylston and Hereford, north side, heading east.”
As the officer begins shadowing the subjects from a distance, others on his team hear the broadcast and begin tracking the subjects’ movements, referring to them now as Black Hat and White Hat. Soon a number of officers are monitoring the Tsarnaevs, some on foot, some watching from rooftops and using binoculars. Many people in the crowd are carrying backpacks, some of them containing changes of clothes to be offered to finishing runners, others bearing food and drinks. But the officers note a difference in the ones carried by the Tsarnaevs. “Their backpacks look heavy,” says one over the radio. “There’s more than clothes or lunch in there.”
The subjects continue to walk east, their movements conspicuous only to those trained to spot the subtle anomalies. The officers take note of the fact that, unlike most of the other people in the area, the Tsarnaevs do not appear to be watching the race or looking down the street for some acquaintance to appear among the finishers. Instead, they seem to be scanning the crowd, paying particular attention to the uniformed police officers in the area. At times they stand or walk together, at others they stand or walk apart as though distancing themselves from one another. When the brothers arrive in front of the Starbucks at 755 Boylston, they speak briefly with each other before one of them continues east.
“They’re splitting up,” says an officer over the radio. “Black Hat remains at the Starbucks, White Hat is walking east.” The officers break into two teams, one for each of the subjects.
“Let’s talk to them,” says a police supervisor over the radio.
Three officers approach White Hat as he walks down Boylston Street. Two of them stand back while the third approaches White Hat. “Sir,” says the contact officer, displaying his badge, “I’m a police officer. Can I talk to you for a minute?”
White Hat does his best to maintain his composure, but the adrenaline coursing through his system makes him fidgety, a fact readily apparent to the officers. The contact officer asks to see White Hat’s identification, at which time the man takes off his backpack as if about to retrieve his wallet. He then suddenly breaks away and tries to flee. As he runs, he takes some type of remote controller from his jacket pocket and attempts to manipulate it, but the other two members of the team are prepared for just this contingency. They pin White Hat’s arms behind his back and wrest the controller from his grasp before he can activate it.
Back in front of the Starbucks, the officers who had been monitoring Black Hat are alerted to what has just occurred up the street. They approach Black Hat from behind and, without warning, grab his hands, subdue him, and remove his backpack and remote control device. The race is halted and the area is evacuated while bomb disposal officers examine the backpacks and disable the bombs discovered within.
It is of course a big news story. “Disaster Averted at Marathon” says the headline in the next day’s Boston Globe, and in the following days the details emerge about Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the former’s trip to Dagestan and all the many other reasons the brothers should have been watched more closely.
But soon another story appears in the Globe. “Were Bomb Suspects ‘Profiled’?” asks the headline. And beneath that headline it is revealed that a handful of people in the crowd at the marathon, some of them bearded Muslim men in their 20s but with no connection to the Tsarnaevs, were questioned by undercover police officers. And, though none of these contacts with police lasted longer than a minute or two, the men felt “insulted and humiliated,” and they believed they were unfairly targeted due to their recognizable appearance as Muslims.
Night after night on MSNBC and elsewhere, representatives from the Council on American-Islamic Relations and similar groups regale sympathetic and credulous television hosts with tales of Muslim suffering at the hands of bigoted police officers. In due season, the story of the successful takedown of the bombers is all but forgotten while the woeful tales of put-upon Muslims go on for days and weeks.
Yes, the Tsarnaev brothers could have been stopped. Even after Tamerlan slipped past all of the so-called trip wires designed to detect potential terrorists, even after the brothers procured and assembled the components for their bombs undetected, even after they evaded the vast government security apparatus erected to thwart them and their ilk, they could have been prevented from carrying out their crime if only we had dared to engage in the kind of profiling practiced successfully in other parts of the world.
Note well that I do not refer to racial profiling. The kind of profiling I endorse is based on behavior, on trained officers observing a crowd of people and looking for individuals whose behavior is anomalous from that exhibited by those around them. In a previous column on the Boston bombing, I wrote the following:
In every police department there are officers whose ability to spot a stolen car or an armed gang member seems so uncanny to their peers that it is assumed their success is the result of luck. Similarly, at every international airport and port of entry there are customs agents whose “hit rates” in interdicting contraband far surpass those of their coworkers. The successes these men and women have are not the result of luck, but rather of their ability to detect the subtle behavioral cues exhibited by people who drive stolen cars, carry weapons, or attempt to smuggle contraband into the country.
The techniques employed by these officers and agents can be taught and put to use in venues where, as at the Boston Marathon, there is no effective way to screen everyone who enters the area. The Tsarnaev brothers, as they moved through the Boylston Street crowd in the moments before their attack, surely exhibited behavior that would have caught the eye of an alert and properly trained police officer.
So why was there no properly trained police officer there that afternoon? Because in the United States, law enforcement executives — which should be sharply distinguished from rank-and-file police officers and federal agents — are fearful of being labeled as anything other than fully supportive of the multiculturalist agenda, so much so that even hearing the word “profile” uttered in their presence can have them wetting themselves and collapsing in tears.
Sadly, though the first part of the counterfactual scenario I present above is plausible, with police officers taking note of the Tsarnaev brothers’ behavior and then preventing them from carrying out the bombing, so too is the second part, with the media’s obsession with profiling and the parade of people whose longing for grievance is their primary reason for getting out of bed in the morning.
Witness a 2010 Washington Post report on security measures used on commercial flights to and from Israel. Most passengers board their flights with relative ease, while a small number is selected for what sometimes is very lengthy and intrusive screening. While acknowledging the success Israel has had with its methods, much of the story is given over to accounts of Arabs and other non-Jews being subjected to what they felt was unfair and excessive scrutiny.
Though successful profiling focuses on behavior rather than race, we live in the real world where the threat to an El Al flight or to a soft target like the Boston Marathon is most likely from a Muslim male between 17 and 30 years of age. Officers searching for a potential terrorist from among a group of airline passengers or in a large crowd would be derelict in their duty if they failed to give a person who met that description a second look. When the statistics are added up — and you know these statistics are recorded in minute detail — the ethnic balance of those stopped and questioned will likely be out of sync with the overall population.
And so what?
While the 9/11 hijackers were indeed Arabic and recognizably Muslim, the Tsarnaev brothers were not. But anyone familiar with the history of Muslim terrorism realizes that though the odds favor a terror bomber being of Middle Eastern appearance, he may also be a white from Chechnya, a Uyghur from China, or a black from Sub-Saharan Africa. That such people are subjected to more police attention than some great-grandmother from Dubuque or a sorority girl from Ole Miss is a sign of a security arrangement’s reasonableness rather than its insensitivity.
But none of this matters, of course, to those responsible for making security policy in America. Better to inconvenience every last passenger going through an airport, better to hoist paraplegics out of their wheelchairs so as to search them than focus attention on those who history teaches are most likely to blow up an airplane or fly it into a skyscraper. And better to let a few people get blown to bits and a few dozen others get maimed every so often than employ techniques that will prevent such horrors, albeit with the side effect of having members of the racial grievance industry get their backs up on television.
The threat of Muslim terror is not abating. How many more Americans will be killed before this changes?