The Magazine

The Injustice Department

Why was Lawrence Greenfeld fired?

Oct 17, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 05 • By JOSEPH M. BESSETTE
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IN AUGUST THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION fired its director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics in a dispute over a press release about a report on racial profiling. Newspaper editorialists and Democrats in Congress charged the administration with suppressing painful truths. In response, Republican officials apparently spread the word to sympathetic commentators that this was a battle between the administration and the anti-Bush permanent bureaucracy. As one commentator told National Public Radio, "Bush finally clamped down on this guy."

"This guy" was President Bush's own appointee to the directorship of BJS, Lawrence A. Greenfeld, a career criminal justice statistician and longtime deputy director of the agency, a unit of the Department of Justice. Happy as the principal deputy, Greenfeld had not sought the top job, which had always gone to a political appointee serving at the pleasure of the president. Yet, when the directorship opened up after Bush's election in 2000, Greenfeld's stellar reputation within the criminal justice community brought him to the attention of the White House. President Bush nominated him to serve as director, and he was confirmed by the Senate. At his swearing-in ceremony, former Attorney General Edwin Meese praised the accomplishments of Greenfeld and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

So what are we to make of this incident? Has the administration won a battle against a hostile bureaucracy, or has it suppressed the truth about racial profiling in the United States? A review of the facts compels four conclusions. First, the administration did not try to suppress or manipulate data, though it did seek to deny publicity to uncomfortable facts. Second, its ham-handedness backfired by attracting infinitely more attention to the sensitive racial profiling data than would otherwise have been the case. Third, it cashiered Greenfeld for doing his job in a responsible and, indeed, exemplary way. Finally, not content simply with firing a dedicated public servant, it maligned him and his agency in a way that was deeply unjust, that undermined morale at a model federal agency, and that jeopardized its good work and its reputation within the criminal justice community.

A personal note: I had the pleasure and honor of working at BJS from 1985 to 1990. For the first three and a half years I served as the deputy director for data analysis to Steven R. Schlesinger, who had been appointed by President Reagan to be the first director of the new agency. In June 1988 I began a two-year stint as acting director of BJS, after which I returned to the academy. As a political appointee, I served under, and at the pleasure of, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and Attorneys General William French Smith, Edwin Meese, and Richard Thornburgh. When I first went to BJS, Greenfeld was in charge of corrections data; when I was acting director, he served as deputy director. In both capacities I worked with him virtually every day. As I told the New York Times when asked to comment on Greenfeld's firing, "I've never met a finer public servant."

Times reporter Eric Lichtblau broke the story of Greenfeld's firing in a front-page piece on August 24. According to Lichtblau--whose account, to the best of my knowledge, has not been disputed by any of the parties involved--Greenfeld and acting Assistant Attorney General Tracy A. Henke had clashed over the contents of a press release to announce the publication of a major BJS study on traffic stops by police. While the study (which was mandated by Congress) showed that white, black, and Hispanic drivers were stopped at almost identical rates in 2002 (8.7 percent of whites, 9.1 percent of blacks, and 8.6 percent of Hispanics), once stopped, black and Hispanic drivers were two to three times more likely to suffer a negative consequence, such as being searched, handcuffed, or arrested. Henke had insisted that the information on the racial/ethnic disparities be removed from the draft press release, writing "Do we need this?" and "Make the changes" on the copy. Greenfeld refused and the press release was withdrawn. The study itself, however, was released unchanged and can be viewed in its entirety on the BJS website (Contacts between Police and the Public: Findings from the 2002 National Survey, April 2005, at www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/cpp02.pdf). Shortly thereafter, Greenfeld was brought in for questioning by the third highest ranking official in the Justice Department and then called to the White House and asked to resign.