OpinionJournal is not about to give up the myth of rampant racial profiling without a fight, even though a recent study has shown that black speeders on the New Jersey Turnpike are stopped because of their speeding, not their race. Says OpinionJournal’s normally sensible webmaster James Taranto: That finding does not disprove police bias, because what about stops for defective equipment like broken tail lights, or other moving violations? Who’s to say there’s not bias in those stops?
Fair enough. It is an empirical question as to what the rate of non-speeding violations is among different racial groups, and how that rate matches the rate of stops (taking into account as well police deployment patterns and ever-changing road demographics). Until a violator benchmark of the rate of defective equipment among various racial groups is constructed, as it was for speeding, we can say nothing with certainty.
But until now, the racial profiling charge indiscriminately swept all police behavior into its net. Speeding stops, equipment stops, or reckless driving stops—all arose out of bias. And during this indiscriminate smear campaign, OpinionJournal uttered not a peep of protest that we should really be focusing our attention on equipment violations alone. Such is the political nature of the racial profiling attack: it creates a moving target. As soon as social science rules out one area of alleged biased behavior by the police, be assured that the charges will move to another area. No bias in broken taillight stops, you say? Well, what about license plates hanging by the left side—have you looked at those? No? Then that’s where the discrimination is occurring!
Nor did OpinionJournal complain when laughably shoddy studies that purported to show racial profiling were made the basis of sweeping charges against the police.
Taranto constructs a hypothetical case so abstract as to be meaningless: though black and white speeders are pulled over proportionately to their rates of speeding, when the police pull over a black driver, he suggests, it’s out of discrimination, but when they pull over a white driver, it’s for “other unknown variables.” These unknown variables result in racial proportionality in stops, which in turn masks the bias toward black drivers. If the police have to rebut such strained reasoning, they don’t stand a chance. However unbiased the results demonstrably are, they are the result of some occult bias not yet unmasked.
Taranto does not credit the testimony of thousands of police officers who say they make stops based on behavior, not race. But he does credit the testimony of two New Jersey troopers who pled guilty to racial profiling to avoid wildly trumped-up second-degree murder charges for a shooting that sure looked like self-defense. The two troopers agreed to the allegation now vigorously endorsed by New Jersey pols that New Jersey trained its officers to focus on black and Hispanic drivers. But the only specific evidence ever produced to back up this charge are DEA training tapes that show members of Jamaican drug posses and Hispanic drug gangs, as well as the weekly DEA-produced drug reports listing the facts about recent drug busts. This hardly amounts to an explicit mandate to single out minorities.
Taranto leaves ambiguous the possibility that the two troopers fired at the van backing into them out of racism. If he means it, he should say so and provide evidence for so incendiary a charge.
Doubtless OpinionJournal is proud of its critique’s punning title, “Profiles Encouraged,” but it achieves its strained wit at the expense of the facts. I have never encouraged profiling in domestic law enforcement. My only point has been that, rather than debating whether racial profiling is a good or bad thing, we should first determine whether it is even going on.
More hard science is needed on the interaction between police and citizen behavior. But it is striking that when the first solid study of that interaction comes along that explains police behavior without reference to racism, everyone, including OpinionJournal, suddenly becomes an amateur statistician and searches frantically for reasons to reject it.