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'Racial Profiling' Doesn't Prove Cops Are Racist By: Jackson Toby
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, March 11, 1999


 

Wall Street Journal | March 11, 1999

LATE LAST MONTH, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman forced the resignation of Col. Carl A. Williams, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, for "insensitivity" because of remarks he had made in a newspaper interview. In replying to accusations that the state police targeted black motorists for traffic stops on the New Jersey Turnpike, Col. Williams had insisted that there was no racial profiling and that stops were made only "on the basis of a traffic violation."

However, he also was quoted by the Newark Star-Ledger as saying that certain crimes were associated with certain ethnic groups and that it would be naive to think that race was not an issue in drug trafficking. "Two weeks ago," Mr. Williams reportedly said, "the President of the United States went to Mexico to talk . . . about drugs. He didn't go to Ireland. He didn't go to England."

Responding to that statement, a group of black state legislators, ministers and civil-rights advocates gathered to denounce Col. Williams as a racist. "His views are dastardly," said New Jersey Assemblyman Leroy J. Jones Jr. "He's unfit to hold such a critical, important office." Mr. Williams was dismissed hours later.

The Williams comments, along with the New York City police killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man, have contributed to the impression of widespread police racism. But neither Mr. Williams nor the officers involved in the Diallo shooting had to be racist to say or do what they did. A little perspective is in order here.

Begin with one of the most important ideas in modern criminology, and one that has revolutionized police practice—the belief that a good way to prevent robberies, murders, and other serious felonies is to go after minor offenses. Thus, when William J. Bratton was chief of the Transit Police in New York City a decade ago, part of his strategy for controlling violence in the subway system was to order his officers to crack down on small infractions—fare beating, panhandling, graffiti, smoking, boisterous behavior.

Within two years of the policy's adoption, the number of felonies in the subway declined by more than 30%. Why? Well, one out of every six fare evaders stopped by the Transit Police in 1991 either was carrying a weapon or was wanted for another crime on an outstanding warrant. By paying attention to behavior that most people regard as not worth bothering about, the Transit Police prevented some violent crimes on the subways.

The same principle applies to drug traffickers on the highways: People who violate major laws are probably also inclined to violate minor ones, such as traffic regulations. Consequently, stopping motorists for traffic violations has led to the seizure of major shipments of illegal drugs to Newark or New York—and even to the apprehension of a wanted murderer. Recall that the Oklahoma City bombing might have gone unpunished had the Perry, Okla., police not stopped Timothy McVeigh because he did not have a license plate on his pickup truck.

There is, of course, a civil-liberties cost to enlarging the police net. Cracking down on fare beaters on the New York subways snared (and embarrassed) passengers in a great hurry to get to appointments. Similarly, although the police have caught major drug traffickers by searching the vehicles of motorists stopped for traffic offenses on the New Jersey Turnpike, their success is counterbalanced by unsuccessful but intrusive vehicle searches of otherwise respectable citizens who made an illegal turn or drove faster than the speed limit. And a disproportionate number of those stopped were black or Hispanic. According to a survey sponsored by the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, blacks accounted for 13% of drivers on the south end of the New Jersey Turnpike, 15% of speeders, and 35% of those stopped by the state police.

Is this evidence of police racism? Not necessarily. True, most blacks and Hispanics are law-abiding. But if drug traffickers are disproportionately black or Hispanic, the police don't need to be racist to stop many minority motorists; they simply have to be efficient in targeting potential drug traffickers. It is an unfortunate fact that much higher proportions of black children than white grow up at a social disadvantage and are more tempted to break society's rules. Thus, although blacks are only 12% of the American population, in a recent year they comprised 56% of the arrests for murder, 42% of the arrests for rape, 61% of the arrests for robbery, 39% of the arrests for aggravated assault, 31% of the arrests for burglary, 33% of the arrests for larceny and 40% of the arrests for motor-vehicle theft. Also 46% of state prison inmates—i.e., those actually convicted of crimes—were black (another 17% were Hispanic). Why should they not be equally overrepresented in drug trafficking, which is less easy to measure statistically?

Some police officers are no doubt racists and some are guilty of misconduct. But it is dangerous to make public policy on the basis of such horrible examples as the Amadou Diallo shooting. All professionals make mistakes: Surgeons operate on the wrong kidney; lawyers botch cross-examinations. Fairness requires that mistakes be looked at in the context of the more numerous examples of good judgment.

But the police deserve extra leeway for their mistakes because, unlike other professionals, they don't have the luxury of turning down unpleasant cases. They make house calls despite personal danger. They have to deal with not only criminals but also paranoid schizophrenics who have not taken their medication or suicidal people. The police come and do their best because the buck stops with them. Usually they succeed; occasionally, and sometimes tragically, they fail.

So should the New York City Police Department be convicted of racism? And should Mr. Williams have been fired as superintendent of the New Jersey State Police? Not in my opinion. True, the police in the Diallo case should have used better judgment, and Mr. Williams could have tiptoed more gently over the unpleasant reality that interdicting drug shipments on the New Jersey Turnpike requires stopping more black than white motorists. But he was defending his officers against what he considered a bum rap: that they were racists. By a wide margin, they are not.

 

 

Copyright © 1999 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


Mr. Toby is a professor of sociology at Rutgers University. He was director of the Institute for Criminological Research at Rutgers from 1969 to 1994.


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