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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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RACIAL PROFILING. The term racial profiling is generally be linked to police likelihood to stop a driver or pedestrian to check for potential activity. Any definition of racial profiling must include, in addition to racially or ethnically discriminatory acts, discriminatory omissions on the part of law enforcement. For example, during the eras of lynching in the South in the 19th and early 20th centuries and the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, southern sheriffs sat idly by while racists like the KU KLUX KLAN terrorized AFRICAN AMERICANS. (1)

It is significant to note that research confirms the existence of bias in decisions to shoot. A series of University of California/University of Chicago studies recreated the experience of a police officer confronted with a potentially dangerous suspect, and found that:

  • Bulleted list item participants fired on an armed target more quickly when the target was African American than when White, and decided not to shoot an unarmed target more quickly when the target was White than when African American;
  • Bulleted list item participants failed to shoot an armed target more often when that target was White than when the target was African American. If the target was unarmed, participants mistakenly shot the target more often when African American than when white;
  • shooting bias was greater among participants who held a strong cultural stereotype of African Americans as aggressive, violent and dangerous, and among participants who reported more contact with African Americans. Shooting bias was greater among participants who held a strong cultural stereotype of African Americans as aggressive, violent and dangerous, and among participants who reported more contact with African Americans

Without naming it as such, the practice may have first been identified in 1993 when Robert Wilkins, a black, Harvard-educated attorney, was stopped in Maryland by the state police. Wilkins was informed that the police wanted to check his car for drugs. When Wilkins challenged the police, the family was detained for nearly an hour until a drug-sniffing dog could be brought to the scene to check the automobile.

During the process of getting ready for trial, Wilkin's attorneys uncovered a police memo advising that "drug couriers were likely to be black males and females." The state settled the case for $95,600 and agreed to retrain officers and others to avoiding targeting minorities. (2)

Wilkin's experience was not unique. John Lambeth, a Temple University professor with a staff of observers, kept records of the racial composition of motorists on the states' highways and then compared then with police records of traffic stops and vehicle searches. Lambeth discovered that in New Jersey as many as 15% of motorists on the highways were black, but they represented 35% of those stopped by police. In 1997, three of every four turnpike drivers stopped by the state police were minorities. (3) In 2001 he was the only expert willing to attempt a standard to be applied to determining racial profiling by police. He suggested that police had a problem if their stops of minority drivers were 50% above the minority's share of the driving population. (4)

Responding to accusations of racism in the department, a Memorandum of Understanding was reached on March 1993 between the DUBUQUE POLICE DEPARTMENT and the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE (N.A.A.C.P.). From that agreement, the --DUBUQUE COMMUNITY ADVISORY PANEL]] was created to hear complaints about police misconduct regarding civil rights of discrimination. While Dubuque, like other most Iowa communities, did not keep records of a person's race during traffic stops, Jonathan Narcisse, a black leader who published the 2001 State of Black Iowa, found the status of Dubuque to the rest of the state "much better."

In addition to testing, interviews, and background checks before they are hired, police officers received ongoing training on cultural diversity. By 2002 the department was a nationally accredited organization found in compliance with standards that guarded against racial discrimination. Between 1993 and 2002 there were no founded complaints against the police. The nineteen member panel composed of city officials, police and minority representatives could not force action, but it could make recommendations. (5) As of 2015, Iowa was one of twenty states that did not prohibit racial profiling statewide. (6)

In 2017 a review by St. Ambrose University staff found no evidence of racial profiling by Dubuque police officers. The study showed, however, that bias might exist. Minority drivers were six times more likely to be asked to search their car, but the number of requests were so small the results might not be valid. Minority drivers in Dubuque were more 20% more likely to be arrested and cited as a result of traffic stops. The study $25,000 study was approved by the Dubuque City Council in September as a means of increasing transparency and give the department more credibility in the community. (7) In 2017 the wearing of body cameras became mandatory as a means of "accurately recording police-community interactions. (8)

Protests again racial profiling and supporting racial justice everywhere in America continued to be held frequently. An example was a march held in November, 2016 concerning raising awareness of mistreatment by law enforcement nationwide, disproportionately high incarcerations and use of deadly force. (9)

In 2018 Iowa Governor Reynolds signed into law an immigration enforcement bill banning so-called sanctuary cities. The legislation would require law enforcement to follow requests from federal agents to hold a jailed person suspected on being in the country illegally. Local governments would lose state funding if they did not comply. Attorneys claimed the provision would open the state to litigation based on racial profiling of any any non-white person. (10)

Protests in Dubuque and across the nation occurred in 2020 after the slaying of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds drew criticism for signing a pro-police measure in 2021 while no addressing a racial profiling ban she had promised to consider in 2020. (11)


The development of phenotyping, a DNA sketch technique, promised a new tool for law enforcement but if used incorrectly could result in racial profiling. The technique used DNA found at a crime scene to predict the shape of a potential criminal's face, skin tone, eye color and hair color. Companies offering the tests created a predictive formula using the DNA of volunteers who also took physical traits surveys or had their face scanned by recognition software. The model the searched DNA samples for specific markers and rated the likelihood that certain characteristics existed. Opponents stated that not enough was known of the link between genes and facial features to produce a suspect sketch. (12)



1. "Racial Profiling in Iowa," Online: https://www.aclu-ia.org/en/racial-profiling-iowa

2. Ibid.

3. Goldman, Henry and Thomas Ginsberg, "Minorities Targeted for Traffic Stops," Telegraph Herald, March 3, 1999, p. 8

4. Pritchard, Justin, "Racial Profiling's Numbers Paint Fuzzy Picture," Telegraph Herald, January 21, 2001, p. 36

5. Greene, Kylie, "Decade After All the Accusations,'Dubuque Learned It's Lesson,' Telegraph Herald, March 21, 2002, p. 1

6. Hogstrom, Erik, "Retired Attorney: Stop Racial Profiling," Telegraph Herald, December 7, 2015, p. 3

7. Barton, Thomas J., "Study: No Racial Profiling in Dubuque's Traffic Stops," Telegraph Herald, July 13, 2017, p. 1

8. Montgomery, Jeff, "ACLU: High Disparity in Dubuque County Pot Arrests," Telegraph Herald, April 21, 2020, p. 1

9. Barton, Thomas J., "On March for Racial Justice," Telegraph Herald, November 21, 2016, p. 1

10. "News in Brief", "Governor Signs Bill Banning 'Sanctuary Cities," Telegraph Herald, April 11, 2018, p. 10A

11. "Reynolds Signs Measure Increasing Protest Penalties," Telegraph Herald, June 18, 2021, p. 23

12. Lauer, Claudia, "DNA Sketch Leads to Slaying Suspect," Telegraph Herald, December 4, 2017, p. 19