The Racial Profiling Myth Debunked
The new numbers prove that there is no systematic police racism.
The anti–racial profiling juggernaut has finally met its nemesis: the truth. According to a new study, black drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike are twice as likely to speed as white drivers, and are even more dominant among drivers breaking 90 miles per hour. This finding demolishes the myth of racial profiling. Precisely for that reason, the Bush Justice Department tried to bury the report so the profiling juggernaut could continue its destructive campaign against law enforcement. What happens next will show whether the politics of racial victimization now trump all other national concerns.
Until now, the anti-police crusade that travels under the banner of “ending racial profiling” has traded on ignorance. Its spokesmen went around the country charging that the police were stopping “too many” minorities for traffic infractions or more serious violations. The reason, explained the anti-cop crowd, was that the police were racist.
They can argue that no more. The new turnpike study, commissioned by the New Jersey attorney general, solves one of the most vexing problems in racial profiling analysis: establishing a violator benchmark. To show that the police are stopping “too many” members of a group, you need to know, at a minimum, the rate of lawbreaking among that group—the so-called violator benchmark. Only if the rate of stops or arrests greatly exceeds the rate of criminal behavior should our suspicions be raised (see “The Myth of Racial Profiling,” Spring 2001). But most of the studies that the ACLU and defense attorneys have proffered to show biased behavior by the police only used crude population measures as the benchmark for comparing police activity—arguing, say, that if 24 percent of speeding stops on a particular stretch of highway were of black drivers, in a city or state where blacks make up 19 percent of the population, the police are over-stopping blacks.
Such an analysis is clearly specious, since it fails to say what percentage of speeders are black, but the data required to rebut it were not available. Matthew Zingraff, a criminologist at North Carolina State University, explains why: “Everybody was terrified. Good statisticians were throwing up their hands and saying, ‘This is one battle you’ll never win. I don’t want to be called a racist.’ ” Even to suggest studying the driving behavior of different racial groups was to demonstrate one’s bigotry, as Zingraff himself discovered when he proposed such research in North Carolina and promptly came under attack. Such investigations violate the reigning fiction in anti–racial profiling rhetoric: that all groups commit crime and other infractions at equal rates. It follows from this central fiction that any differences in the rate at which the police interact with certain citizens result only from police bias, not from differences in citizen behavior.
Despite the glaring flaws in every racial profiling study heretofore available, the press and the politicians jumped on the anti-profiling bandwagon. How could they lose? They showed their racial sensitivity, and, as for defaming the police without evidence, well, you don’t have to worry that the New York Times will be on your case if you do.
No institution made more destructive use of racial profiling junk science than the Clinton Justice Department. Armed with the shoddy studies, it slapped costly consent decrees on police departments across the country, requiring them to monitor their officers’ every interaction with minorities, among other managerial intrusions.
No consent decree was more precious to the anti-police agenda than the one slapped on New Jersey. In 1999, then-governor Christine Todd Whitman had declared her state’s highway troopers guilty of racial profiling, based on a study of consent searches that would earn an F in a freshmen statistics class. (In a highway consent search, an officer asks a driver for permission to search his car, usually for drugs or weapons.) The study, executed by the New Jersey attorney general, lacked crucial swathes of data on stops, searches, and arrests, and compensated for the lack by mixing data from wildly different time periods. Most fatally, the attorney general’s study lacked any benchmark of the rate at which different racial groups transport illegal drugs on the turnpike. Its conclusion that the New Jersey state troopers were searching “too many” blacks for drugs was therefore meaningless.
Hey, no problem! exclaimed the Clinton Justice Department. Here’s your consent decree and high-priced federal monitor; we’ll expect a lengthy report every three months on your progress in combating your officers’ bigotry.
Universally decried as racists, New Jersey’s troopers started shunning discretionary law-enforcement activity. Consent searches on the turnpike, which totaled 440 in 1999, the year that the anti–racial profiling campaign got in full swing, dropped to an astoundingly low 11 in the six months that ended October 31, 2001. At the height of the drug war in 1988, the troopers filed 7,400 drug charges from the turnpike, most of those from consent searches; in 2000, they filed 370 drug charges, a number that doubtless has been steadily dropping since then. It is unlikely that drug trafficking has dropped on New Jersey’s main highway by anything like these percentages.
“There’s a tremendous demoralizing effect of being guilty until proven innocent,” explains trooper union vice president Dave Jones. “Anyone you interact with can claim you’ve made a race-based stop, and you spend years defending yourself.” Arrests by state troopers have also been plummeting since the Whitman–Justice Department racial profiling declaration. Not surprisingly, murder jumped 65 percent in Newark, a major destination of drug traffickers, between 2000 and 2001. In an eerie replay of the eighties’ drug battles, Camden is considering inviting the state police back to fight its homicidal drug gangs.
But one thing did not change after the much-publicized consent decree: the proportion of blacks stopped on the turnpike for speeding continued to exceed their proportion in the driving population. Man, those troopers must be either really dumb or really racist! thought most observers, including the New Jersey attorney general, who accused the troopers of persistent profiling.
Faced with constant calumny for their stop rates, the New Jersey troopers asked the attorney general to do the unthinkable: study speeding behavior on the turnpike. If it turned out that all groups drive the same, as the reigning racial profiling myths hold, then the troopers would accept the consequences.
Well, we now know that the troopers were neither dumb nor racist; they were merely doing their jobs. According to the study commissioned by the New Jersey attorney general and leaked first to the New York Times and then to the Web, blacks make up 16 percent of the drivers on the turnpike, and 25 percent of the speeders in the 65-mile-per-hour zones, where profiling complaints are most common. (The study counted only those going more than 15 miles per hour over the speed limit as speeders.) Black drivers speed twice as much as white drivers, and speed at reckless levels even more. Blacks are actually stopped less than their speeding behavior would predict—they are 23 percent of those stopped.
The devastation wrought by this study to the anti-police agenda is catastrophic. The medieval Vatican could not have been more threatened had Galileo offered photographic proof of the solar system. It turns out that the police stop blacks more for speeding because they speed more. Race has nothing to do with it.
This is not a politically acceptable result. And the researchers who conducted the study knew it. Anticipating a huge backlash should they go public with their findings, they checked and rechecked their data. But the results always came out the same.
Being scientists, not politicians, they prepared to publish their study this past January, come what may. Not so fast! commanded the now-Bush Justice Department. We have a few questions for you. And the Bush DOJ, manned by the same attorneys who had so eagerly snapped up the laughable New Jersey racial profiling report in 1999, proceeded to pelt the speeding researchers with a series of increasingly desperate objections.
The elegant study, designed by the Public Service Research Institute in Maryland, had taken photos with high-speed camera equipment and a radar gun of nearly 40,000 drivers on the turnpike. The researchers then showed the photos to a team of three evaluators, who identified the race of the driver. The evaluators had no idea if the drivers in the photos had been speeding. The photos were then correlated with speeds.
The driver identifications are not reliable! whined the Justice Department. The researchers had established a driver’s race by agreement among two of the three evaluators. So in response to DOJ’s complaint, the researchers reran their analysis, using only photos about which the evaluators had reached unanimous agreement. The speeding ratios came out identically to before.
The data are incomplete! shouted the Justice Department next. About one third of the photos had been unreadable, because of windshield glare that interfered with the camera, or the driver’s position. Aha! said the federal attorneys. Those unused photos would change your results! But that is a strained argument. The only way that the 12,000 or so unreadable photos would change the study’s results would be if windshield glare or a seating position that obstructed the camera disproportionately affected one racial group. Clearly, they do not.
Nevertheless, DOJ tried to block the release of the report until its objections were answered. “Based on the questions we have identified, it may well be that the results reported in the draft report are wrong or unreliable,” portentously wrote Mark Posner, a Justice lawyer held over from the Clinton era.
DOJ’s newfound zeal for pseudo-scientific nitpicking is remarkable, given its laissez-faire attitude toward earlier slovenly reports that purported to show racial profiling. Where it gets its new social-science expertise is also a mystery, since according to North Carolina criminologist Matthew Zingraff, “there’s not a DOJ attorney who knows a thing about statistical methods and analysis.” Equally surprising is Justice’s sudden unhappiness with the Public Service Research Institute, since it approved the selection of the institute for an earlier demographic study of the turnpike.
The institute proposed a solution to the impasse: Let us submit the study to a peer-reviewed journal or a neutral body like the National Academy of Sciences. If a panel of our scientific peers determines the research to be sound, release the study then. No go, said the Justice Department. That study ain’t seeing the light of day.
Robert Voas, the study’s co-author, is amazed by Justice’s intransigence. “I think it’s very unfortunate that the politics have gotten in the way of science,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “The scientific system has not been allowed to move as it should have in this situation.”
As DOJ and the New Jersey attorney general stalled, The Record of Bergen posted the report on the Web, forcing the state attorney general to release it officially. Now the damage control begins in earnest. Everyone with a stake in the racial profiling myth, from the state attorney general to the ACLU to defense attorneys who have been getting drug dealers out of jail and back on the streets by charging police racism, is trying to minimize the significance of the findings. But they are fighting a rear-guard battle. Waiting in the wings are other racial profiling studies by statisticians who actually understand the benchmark problem: Matthew Zingraff’s pioneering traffic research in North Carolina, due out in April, as well as sound studies in Pennsylvania, New York, and Miami. Expect many of the results to support the turnpike data, since circumstantial evidence from traffic fatalities and drunk-driving tests have long suggested different driving behaviors among different racial groups. While racist cops undoubtedly do exist, and undoubtedly they are responsible for isolated instances of racial profiling, the evidence shows that systematic racial profiling by police does not exist.
The Bush administration, however desperate to earn racial sensitivity points, should realize that far more than politics is at stake in the poisonous anti–racial profiling agenda. It has strained police-community relations and made it more difficult for the police to protect law-abiding citizens in inner-city neighborhoods. The sooner the truth about policing gets out, the more lives will be saved, and the more communities will be allowed to flourish freed from the yoke of crime.
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