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Racial Profiling… There’s an App for That

In major cities across the U.S., communities are using smartphone apps to alert one another when they are victimized by crime and to report suspicious people who they believe are about to commit a crime. In this essay Nathan Palmer discusses how this effort is increasing both social integration and racial profiling.

In Georgetown, a wealthy and predominately white neighborhood in Washington D.C., Terrence McCoy reports that 400 residents, retailers, and police officers have been using the smartphone app GroupMe to send alerts when crime happens and photos of suspicious looking people in their shops or walking on the street. The program, which was codenamed “Operation GroupMe”, is just one of many similar efforts taking place in major cities around the country. McCoy discussed what his reporting uncovered in an interview with NPR’s Kelly McEvers last month:

Those who support initiatives like Operation GroupMe argue that they make communities safer. On the other hand, critics argue that initiatives like these encourage racial profiling and reveal how hostile these posh neighborhood can be toward people of color and those who are not highly affluent. Sociological theory can help us better understand both sides of this issue.

How Operation GroupMe Increases Social Integration

From a sociological point of view, a community is a social network. Every resident is connected to some of the other residents and they in turn are connected to a different sub-group of residents. Social integration from this perspective describes the degree to which members of the network are connected to one another. In a community where “everyone knows everyone” there is a high degree of social integration. In communities where residents do not have many social connections to their neighbors, sociologists would say there is a low degree of social integration. Apps like GroupMe make it easier for residents to establish connections to each other and as a result increase social integration.

Proponents of initiatives like Operation GroupMe and the like seem to be arguing that the faster warnings of danger can be shared through the community, the safer that community will be. In sociological terms, these proponents are arguing that Operation GroupMe increases social integration which makes the community less susceptible to being victimized by crime.

How Operation GroupMe Increases Racial Profiling

As a network becomes better integrated information can flow through the network faster but, there is no guarantee that information that is spread through the highly integrated network will be accurate, valuable, or just. McCoy reports that Operation GroupMe primarily sent two types of information through the network: reports of victimization and reports of “suspicious people.” Reports of victimization only happen after someone has been the victim of a crime. Thus, these reports are descriptions of objective experiences someone in the community.

Reports of “suspicious people”, on the other hand, are subjective judgments of what one person believes is likely to happen based upon how the “suspicious person” looks and/or is behaving. Human judgment, as a mountain of psychological research has documented, can easily be influenced and is biased by an individual’s past experiences, their culture, and a host of other factors (see Banaji and Greenwald 2013 for a good review of this research). This body of research shows that many people have a implicit bias against people of color and unfairly associate them with crime. In fact, even trained police officers and detectives have been shown to have implicit bias and they are not better able to reliably “spot a criminal” before s/he commits a crime (Benforado 2015).

Thus, it is not surprising that McCoy’s analysis of Operation GroupMe found that the majority of the photos of “suspicious people” where images of African-Americans. Nor is it surprising that the captions underneath these photos used language indicating clear racial prejudice and invoked many racial stereotypes. Racism and the ideology of white supremacy influences how each of us see the world and the people in it. If initiatives like Operation GroupMe continue to alert the community of “suspicious people”, we should anticipate that implicit racial bias will affect the judgment of those sending the alerts.

Dig Deeper:

  1. How do initiatives like Operation GroupMe make a community safer? How do these initiatives make a community less safe? Explain your answers
  2. How should the local government respond to Operation GroupMe? Should new laws be passed to protect citizens? Should the programs be outlawed or forced to modify? Or should the program be expanded to more neighborhoods? Explain your positions.
  3. How could initiatives like Operation GroupMe be modified to avoid racial profiling?
  4. Sometimes individuals who feel excluded from a community do things to harm the people in that community. How can we explain this from a social integration point of view? In your answer, be sure to use the words social integration and explain your reasoning.


  • Banaji, Mahzarin R. and Anthony G. Greenwald. 2013. Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. New York: Delacorte Press.
  • Benforado, Adam. 2015. Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice. New York: Crown.