Social Profiling
2/7/2016 12:24 PM

Legal & Justice Issues: Social Profiling

Social profiling refers to the use of a person’s social status (in this case, their homelessness) by police or security services as a key factor in determining whether or how to enforce laws.  The underlying principle of social profiling is that in understanding encounters between the police and homeless persons, it is their status of being homeless, real or presumed, rather than their criminality, that leads to the application of specific measures in a disproportionate manner. In a recent report on youth homelessness and policing, the following definition was used:

“The social profiling of homeless persons refers to a range of actions undertaken for safety, security or public protection, or in response to public fear, that relies on stereotypes about the danger and criminality of people who are homeless and their uses of public space (for money making, sleeping or resting), rather than on a reasonable suspicion, to be singled out for greater scrutiny or differential treatment.”
The profiling of homeless persons, particularly those who have been street involved for some time, may be based on a person’s “sloppy or neglected appearance,” “bad bodily odour or personal hygiene” and “used and ill-assorted clothing”. When it comes to homeless youth, social profiling also reflects public perceptions that young people are more likely to be rebellious and / or delinquent. Police and security guard ‘suspicions’ about the criminality of homeless persons may also be influenced by where the person identified as homeless is – in public spaces like streets or parks, or semi-public spaces such as shopping malls.  While the presence of a person who is homeless in such places may be – to some – undesirable, it is not illegal. People who are homeless are put in the position of using public spaces in distinct ways because they lack access to private space (for instance, drinking in public is not so much a choice when you cannot drink in private). For some sub-populations, racial profiling (black or Aboriginal youth) can intersect with social profiling to compound the differential treatment they receive. 

The concept of social profiling builds on the extensive literature on policing and racial profiling, which argues that policing involves discretionary practices, and people who are visible minorities receive an inordinate amount of attention not because of criminal profiling, but rather due to explicit and implicit discriminatory practices.

Sometimes social and racial profiling are justified because police, politicians and the general public believe that there is a greater statistical likelihood that members of a particular group will be involved in criminal activities.  However, this is a false logic and a misuse of statistics, as a statistical generalization cannot be applied to an individual case.  For instance, to argue that a woman’s greatest risk of violence and assault is at the hands of a current or ex husband/partner (which is true) does not mean that all husbands or partners are violent, or that police should routinely stop such individuals based on this statistical pattern (and they don’t).  

Social profiling is a form of discrimination that typically targets marginalized populations, in which the individual rights of homeless people are violated when they become subject to extraordinary police attention because of their status of being homeless.   In the Province of Quebec, the Quebec Human Rights Commission has in fact accepted the term "social profiling".

AUTHOR: Gaetz, Stephen (2012) Homeless Hub.

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