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Spring 1999
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  S oundings

Whitman Wimps Out
Brian C. Anderson
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Early in March, New Jersey's governor Christine Todd Whitman fired her state police chief, Col. Carl Williams Jr., for "insensitivity." A reporter had asked Williams—a 35-year veteran nicknamed "the Truth" for his integrity—about the charge that Jersey's state police practiced racial profiling: deliberately pulling over black motorists and searching their cars for drugs more frequently than those of whites. Williams denied it but guilelessly observed that various ethnic groups play different roles in the drug trade: "If you're looking at the methamphetamine market, that seems to be controlled by the motorcycle gangs, which are basically predominantly white," Williams said. Jamaicans dominate the heroin market, he added, while Russians and Eastern Europeans drive other drug markets. After the comments ran in Newark's Star-Ledger, minority activists cried racism, and Whitman summarily canned her top cop.

Firing Williams was wrong. Law-enforcement officials know, as Williams impoliticly admitted, that ethnic groups participate unequally in various drug markets. In fact, as William J. Bratton and William Andrews explain in "What We've Learned About Policing" on page 14, better police strategy—deploying resources where they will have an effect—has had much to do with pushing down crime rates nationwide. Are police simply to ignore the ethnic or racial component to crime, whatever its cost to their effectiveness?

The racial profiling charge is tricky. A 1996 New Jersey court ruling found no formal state police policy of profiling, but statistics showed that blacks were 13 percent of the drivers on the Jersey Turnpike's southern section and 35 percent of those stopped by the police—a disproportion, in the court's view, that amounted to de facto racial discrimination.

But as sociologist Jackson Toby argued in the Wall Street Journal, blacks are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the country's serious crime: 46 percent of the state prison inmates, who've been convicted of crime, are black, even though blacks constitute only 12 percent of the population. As Toby concludes, "Why should [blacks] not be equally overrepresented in drug trafficking, which is less easy to measure statistically?" Rather than being racist, Jersey cops simply might be skilled in recognizing drug traffickers. The statistical discrepancy is by no means in itself evidence of racism.

The remarkable rollback of crime in U.S. cities has been such good news that advocates of the old discredited theories of crime have remained mostly silent in the face of it. That silence seems to be ending—in part because of the tragic police shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York. But political leaders, particularly ostensible conservatives, shouldn't kowtow to racial demagoguery so readily and pressure law-enforcement officials to ignore reality in favor of egalitarian fantasy. Down that road lies more crime.

 

 


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