The Magazine

The Injustice Department

Why was Lawrence Greenfeld fired?

Oct 17, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 05 • By JOSEPH M. BESSETTE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In recent years, BJS has expanded its data collection efforts in innovative ways to shed light on issues of growing importance. For example, its 1998 and 2001 surveys documenting huge backlogs in DNA labs throughout the nation led to a major Bush administration effort to address the problem.

No one is more responsible for BJS's record of achievement than Larry Greenfeld. He created from scratch many of the key data sets, and carefully oversaw others over the years as the agency's deputy director and director. He and his staff pioneered innovative studies on dozens of criminal justice issues and have successfully steered the agency into the Internet age, providing the public and the criminal justice community with a website that is a model of clarity, ease of use, and richness of data. It is hard to imagine what more a federal agency and its director could do to faithfully serve the public trust. And Greenfeld and his staff have done all this while maintaining the highest standards of professionalism.

PART OF THAT PROFESSIONALISM is refusing to agree to a press release that would be deceptively incomplete. BJS's study on traffic stops contained some very good news: White, black, and Hispanic drivers were stopped by the police at virtually identical rates. This is compelling evidence against the stereotype of police racial profiling. True, this encouraging finding was tempered by the fact that once stopped, blacks and Hispanics were much more likely to be searched, handcuffed, or arrested (although the vast majority of all three groups suffered nothing more than the issuance of a warning or traffic ticket). Yet this finding itself does not prove racism in police treatment: There may have been legitimate nonracial reasons the individuals were treated as they were. Indeed, if police disproportionately enforce traffic laws based on race and ethnicity, it is hard to understand why they don't pull over higher proportions of blacks and Hispanics. Serious people ought to care about and reflect upon data of this sort; and they ought not to be afraid to let the public know about it.

Ironically, virtually identical data were contained in the previous BJS study on police contacts and were properly identified in the corresponding press release. In March 2001, BJS released a comparable study of police contacts in 1999. On the second page of the two-page press release (still available on the BJS website), it was duly noted that "Black and Hispanic motorists (11 percent each) were more likely than whites (5 percent) to be physically searched or have their vehicles searched." The information entered the public domain with nary a ripple of controversy.

As Greenfeld told the New York Times in defending the administration that had done him wrong, "There's always a natural and healthy tension between the people who make the policy and the people who do the statistics. That's there every day of the week, because some days you're going to have good news and some days you're going to have bad news." Despite the tension, it is important for political appointees to understand and respect the mission of government statistics agencies. "Quasi-independence" perhaps best captures the relationship.

When I was at BJS, there was a plan afoot to consolidate all the executive branch statistics agencies into one large independent agency, along the lines of "Statistics Canada." I argued to the attorney general that this would be bad for the Department of Justice by placing too great a distance between the line agency and its statistical arm. But if statistics agencies should not be too distant from the operating agencies, neither should they be too close. In the current episode, main Justice overreached, generating an unnecessary public relations flap that ill-served the president. In the process, it wounded and weakened an outstanding public agency--one critical in the long run to the nation's battle against crime--and it mistreated a fine public servant. What seems to be lacking in those responsible for these events is an appreciation of the importance of publicly credible data for sound policymaking, an understanding of the political nuances of bridging the gap between policy and data, and, frankly, some simple human decency.

Joseph M. Bessette is Alice Tweed Tuohy professor of government and ethics at Claremont McKenna College.