The Experiences of Black Police Officers Who Have Been Racially Profiled: an Exploratory Research Note


When Black police officers take off their uniform, do they become the target of racial profiling? The purpose of this paper is to report on how minority officers experience racial profiling when out of uniform. It is difficult to reject the accounts of police officers who say that they have been subjected to racial profiling because they, as experts in the field, well understand the policy, procedures, and intricacies of police work. Further, they have much to say about the implementation and continued harms enabled by the practice of profiling. While this work is exploratory in nature, we nonetheless illuminate the following themes: for those who have experienced profiling, there is considerable disbelief by the on duty officer that a Black individual is actually an officer when out of uniform; that Black officers are subject to the same historical racial stereotypes of criminality; and that officers (when out of uniform) are subject to being seen as “interlopers” in predominately “white spaces” and are apt to be aggressively confronted by citizens and police alike for violating these real and symbolic spaces.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    Campbell (2017) relayed that many Black officers felt they were targeted for “driving while Black” and that fellow officers used “pretext” to pull them over for unwarranted reasons. In Whren v. United States (1996), the Supreme Court upheld that police officers can use alleged minor motor vehicle violations as a “pretext” to stop and search for a more serious crime. The concern here is that research (Johnson 2010) has found that police officers have used minor motor vehicle violations to stop African American drivers and conduct a search under the “war on drugs campaign” to justify their actions against African Americans.

  2. 2.

    The black officer was hit in the arm; he was treated in the hospital and released. As of this writing, neither officer’s name has been released.

  3. 3.

    Although our method is in keeping with prior studies that have also relied on available reports in the media (Ulsperger and Knottnerus 2011; Byfield 2014), we recognize two limitations of using these data. The first centers on the problem of relying exclusively on news reports, biographical experiences, and commentary by journalistic professionals inasmuch that racial profiling often goes unreported to authorities for fear of retribution or in the belief that such reports will not be taken seriously (Knafo 2016). Second, because our knowledge regarding the experiences of police officials who appear to have been profiled is based most entirely upon (limited) written reports, this study should be considered as exploratory in nature. What is needed is a more thorough survey and grounded qualitative analysis of such experiences.

  4. 4.

    After the incident, the two officers were reprimanded. One officer had his gun and badge stripped from him for being rude and insubordinate to Zeigler after the superior officer identified himself. Again, Zeigler insisted he showed his NYPD identification but said the officers didn’t believe him. The other officer apologized to Zeigler for his partner’s outburst and escaped serious discipline. Zeigler continued to head the Community Affairs Bureau until his retirement in 2010. After retiring from the police, Zeigler served as the New York City’s director of security for the Mass Transit Authority from 2011 to 2013.


  1. Alex, N. (1969). Black in blue: A study of the negro policeman. New York: Appleton Century-Crofts.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Anderson, E. (2015). The white space. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 1(1), 10–21.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Anonymous. (2017). Being Racially profiled as a teen spurred me on to become a police officer. The guardian (May 6). Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  4. Barish, H., Du Vernay, A., & Averick, S. (2016). 13th [Documentary film]. USA: Netflix.

  5. Barlow, D. E., & Barlow, M. H. (2002). Racial profiling: A survey of African American officers. Police Quarterly, 5(3), 334–358.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Birzer, M. (2013). Racial profiling: They stopped me because I’m _______! Boca Raton: CRC Press.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Bolton Jr., K., & Feagin, J. R. (2004). Black in blue: African American police officers and racism. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Braga, A. A. (2013). Embedding criminologists in police departments. Ideas in American policing. Number 17. Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  9. Brough, P., Chataway, S., & Biggs, A. (2016). “‘you Don’t want people knowing You’re a copper!’” a contemporary assessment of police organizational culture. International Journal of Police Science & Management, 18(1), 28–36.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Byfield, N. (2014). Savage portrayals: Race, media and the Central Park jogger story. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Campbell, M. A. (2017). African American male police officers' perceptions of being racially profiled by fellow police officers. Unpublished PhD Dissertation. Walden University.

  12. Colin, M.. (2014). “Off duty, black cops in New York feel threat from fellow police.” Reuters (Dec 23) Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  13. Collins, R. (2008). Violence: A micro-sociological theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  14. Cooper, F. R. (2016). America’s police culture has a masculinity problem. The conversation: academic rigor, journalistic flair (July 19). Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  15. Covington, J. (2010). Crime and racial constructions. Boulder: Lexington Books.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Devine, P. G., Forscher, P. S., Austin, A. J., & Cox, W. T. L. (2013). “long-term reduction in implicit race bias:” a prejudice habit-breaking intervention. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(6), 1267–1278.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Entman, R. M. (1992). Blacks in the news: Television, modern racism and cultural change. Journalism Quarterly, 69(2), 341–361.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Fifield, J. (2016). Can diverse police departments ease community tension?. PBS Newshour (August 22). Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  19. Fridell, L., Lunney, R., Diamond, D., & Kubu, B. (2001). Racially biased policing: A principled response. Washington, DC: Police Research Forum.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Friedersdorf, C. (2016). End needless interactions with police officers during traffic stops: A broken taillight does not require armed agents of the state to approach a motorist’s window. The Atlantic (July 8). Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  21. Fryer R. G. Jr. (2015). An empirical analysis of racial differences in police use of force. The national bureau of economic research (Working Paper 22399). Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  22. Gardner, G. (2008). White cop disciplined for profiling black police chief. NPR (May 13). Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  23. Gerald, R. (2000). Testimony of master Sgt. Rossano Gerald on racial profiling before the senate judiciary subcommittee on the constitution. ACLU. Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  24. Gorner, J. (2017). Chicago police clear officers of racial profiling in stop of U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush. Chicago Tribune (Feb 9). Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  25. Harris, D. A. (2002). Profiles in injustice: Why racial profiling cannot work. New York: The New Press.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Hauser, C. (2017). White police officer in St. Louis shoots off-duty black colleague. The New York Times (June 26). Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  27. Higgins, L. (2015). Video shows 4 black officers held at gunpoint by police. USA TODAY (May 4). Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  28. Hill, M. L. (2016). Nobody. New York: Atria Books.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Hyland, S., Langton, L., and Davis, E. (2015). Police Use of Nonfatal Force, 2002–11. U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  30. Johnson, K. R. (2010). How racial profiling in America became the law of the land: United States v. Brignoni-ponce and Whren v. United States and the need for truly rebellious lawyering. Georgetown Law Journal, 98, 1005–1077 Retrieved July 13, 2007.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Johnson, N. (2014). Retired NYPD detective believes he was racially profiled during attack by fellow officers. PIX11 (Dec 10). Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  32. Kaste, M. (2017). In social media age, young cops get trained for real-life conversation. NPR (Jan 12). Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  33. Kelly, A.. (2016). Black GOP senator says he's been stopped by police 7 times in a year. NPR (July 14). Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  34. Kendi, I. X. (2016). Stamped from the beginning. New York: Nation Books.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Keyes, Vance De Bral. (2014). A thin blue line and the great black divide: The inter and intra departmental conflict among black police officers, their agencies, and the communities in which they work regarding police use of force perception by black Americans in a Southwestern State. Unpublished PhD Dissertation. Nova Southeastern University.

  36. Kinney, A. (2016). Hood. New York: Bloomsbury.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Klinger, D., Rosenfeld, R., Isom, D., & Deckard, M. (2015). Race, crime, and the micro-ecology of deadly force. Criminology and Public Policy, 15(1), 193–222.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Knafo, S. (2016). A black police officer’s fight against the NYPD. The New York Times (Feb 18). Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  39. Leinen, S. (1984). Black police: White society. New York: New York University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Ly, L. (2014). Four black parole officers file civil suit against white police officers. CNN (May 6). Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  41. Markovitz, J. (2011). Racial Spectacles. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Martin, M. 2016. Looking at how police are trained. NPR (Jul 9). Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  43. Meeks, K. (2000). Driving while black. New York: Broadway Books.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Nathan, Debbie. (2016). What happened to Sandra bland?. The Nation (April 21). Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  45. Ossei-Owusu, S. (2016). Race and the tragedy of quota-based policing. American Prospect-Longform (Nov 3). Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  46. Perin, C. (1988). Belonging in America: Reading between the lines. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

    Google Scholar 

  47. Powermaker, H., Williams, B. F., & Woodson, D. G. (1993 (1939)). After freedom: A cultural study in the deep south. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Reiman, J., & Leighton, P. (2010). The rich get richer and the poor get prison: Ideology, class, and criminal justice (9th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

    Google Scholar 

  49. Robbins, T. (2016). Dallas has been called a leader in police training, transparency. NPR (July 8). Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  50. Ronell, N. (2011). Criminal behavior, criminal mind: Being caught in a ‘criminal spin’. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 55(8), 1208–1233.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Russell, K. (1998). The color of crime: Racial hoaxes, white fear, black protectionism, police harassment and other macroaggressions. New York: NYU Press.

    Google Scholar 

  52. Schenwar, M., Macare, J., & Price, A. Y.-I. (Eds.). (2016). Who do you serve, who do you protect?: Police violence and resistance in the United States. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Scur, E. M. (1973). Radical non-intervention: Rethinking the delinquency problem. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  54. Shon, P. C. H. (2008). Language and demeanor in police-citizen encounters. Boulder: University Press of America.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Skolnick, J. H. (1994). Justice without trial: Law enforcement in democratic society (3rd ed.). New York: Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  56. Stone, C., Carter, Z., Belfiore, T., Bully-Cummings, E. M., Daughtry, H., Farrell, M. J., Gascón, G., Rice, A., Rice, L., and Hewitt, D. T. (2010). Reducing inherent danger: report of the task force on police on police shootings. New York State task force on police on police shootings. Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  57. Taylor-Powell, E. and Renner, M. (2003). Analyzing qualitative data. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Publication. Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  58. Ulsperger, J. S., & Knottnerus, J. D. (2011). Elder care catastrophe: Rituals of abuse in nursing homes. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  59. United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. 2015. Investigation of the Ferguson police department. Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  60. Van De Poel-Knottnerus, F., & Knottnerus, J. D. (1994). Social life through literature: A suggested strategy for conducting a literary ethnography. Sociological Focus, 27(1), 67–80.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Voigt, R., Camp, N. P., Prabhakaran, V., Hamilton, W. L., Hetey, R. C., Griffiths, C. M., Jurgens, D., Jurfsky, D., & Eberhardt, J. L. (2017). Language from police body camera footage shows racial disparities in officer respect. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America., 114(25), 6521–6526.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Weichselbaum, S. and Thompson, C. (2014). What it’s like to be black in the NYPD right now. The Marshall project (December 8). Retrieved 13 July 2017.

  63. Welch, K. (2007). Black criminal stereotypes and racial profiling. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 23(3), 276–288.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. Westley, W. (1953). Violence and the police. American Journal of Sociology, 49(1), 34–41.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. Whren v. United States (1996). 517 U.S. 806.

  66. Wilson, C. P., Wilson, S. A., & Thou, M. (2015). Perceptions of African American police officers on racial profiling in small agencies. Journal of Black Studies, 46(5), 482–505.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  67. Wootson, Jr., Cleve R. (2017). A black off-duty cop tried to help stop a crime. Another officer shot him. The Washington Post (June 25). Retrieved 13 July 2017.

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to John Paul.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Paul, J., Birzer, M. The Experiences of Black Police Officers Who Have Been Racially Profiled: an Exploratory Research Note. J Afr Am St 21, 567–584 (2017).

Download citation


  • Black police officers
  • Racial profiling
  • Stereotyping
  • Bias-based policing