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Is the phone alert for the NYC bombing suspect a gateway to racial profiling?

People are worried it'll make others unreasonably suspicious of brown people.


Jaya Saxena


Posted on Sep 19, 2016   Updated on May 25, 2021, 11:40 pm CDT

Early this morning, New Yorkers were jolted by pings from their phones. The NYPD were looking for a possible suspect in conjunction with Saturday night’s bombing in Chelsea. “WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-year-old male. See media for pic. Call 9-1-1 if seen,” the alert read. 

Though clicking through would reveal a photo of the suspect, many worried that sending an “emergency alert” for an Arab-sounding name during rush hour would just inspire racial profiling.

New Yorkers took to Twitter to complain about the notification, which many felt would only put brown people in danger.

The alerts also raise the question of just how effective they would be in actually finding a suspect. The Amber Alert (different from emergency alerts) were originally designed to warn people about kidnapped children, and later about extreme weather, but research suggests they may be better at making people feel vigilant than actually solving crimes. In a study in the Journal of Criminal Justice, professor Timothy Griffin writes, “In the overwhelming majority of the cases examined, the circumstances of the abduction did not suggest the children were in ‘life-threatening’ peril, suggesting Amber Alert’s achievements are probably being exaggerated by those claiming it routinely ‘saves lives.’”

The suspect, Ahmad Khan Rahami, is reported to be a naturalized U.S. citizen whose last known address was in Elizabeth, New Jersey. On NY1, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio said the alert came from “a sense of urgency,” and said the city will use phone alerts more frequently so New Yorkers could report “anything that looks suspicious.” But considering many white Americans are inherently suspicious of brown and black people, that could just lead to calling the cops on people of color for no reason. In fact, that’s already happened.

In an interview this morning on Fox & Friends, Donald Trump actually called for racial profiling for people “from that part of the world” (you know, the brown part) after this weekend’s bombings.

The upside is maybe New Yorkers are too jaded to even pay attention.

Update, Sept. 19, 10:49am: Rahami has been captured in New Jersey, following a police shootout. 

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*First Published: Sep 19, 2016, 12:29 pm CDT