The Magazine

The War on the Police

. . . and how it harms the war on terrorism.

Dec 31, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 16 • By HEATHER MAC DONALD
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I'VE BEEN AMUSING myself recently with the following experiment: I call up the most strident anti-police activists of recent years, people like Georgetown law professor David Cole, who argues that every aspect of the criminal justice system is racist. I ask these police critics the following question: Suppose that in the wake of September 11, the FBI decides to check out recent graduates of American flight schools to see who else may be plotting to use airplanes as weapons. Which students, I ask, should the FBI investigate--all of the would-be pilots, or a subset of them?

Without exception, I get the following answer: "The FBI should investigate everyone."

"Everyone?" I respond, "that's a big number. You'd be stretching the resources of the FBI dangerously thin. Wouldn't you look," I ask, "at a student from Saudi Arabia more closely than you would at someone from Kentucky?"

Nope, comes the reply. The FBI has to investigate everyone equally to avoid racism. A civil liberties law professor from St. Louis University even insisted: "I'm sure the FBI has the resources to investigate everybody."

Now I have drawn the following conclusions from my experiment: First, these self-described policing experts know absolutely nothing about police work. Any police investigation has to use known facts to narrow the scope of the inquiry, since manpower is finite. In this case, the FBI would be nuts not to use the nationalities and religious identities of the 19 hijackers to search for their co-conspirators among flight school alumni, since the hijackers themselves define their mission in religious terms.

Yet despite their obvious ignorance, the police critics in my canvass and others like them have controlled the public discourse about law enforcement for the last half-decade, creating a public relations and policy nightmare for cops.

I also conclude from my experiment that if these professional police-bashers exert the same influence over counterterrorism as they have over domestic policing, we're all in trouble. Indeed, we may have missed an opportunity to avoid the terror of September 11 because of their baneful effects.

It seems worth exploring, then, the premises of the anti-police crusade and its implications for fighting terrorism.

SINCE THE 1960s, anti-cop sentiment has been a fixture of elite American culture. Never did it reach the prominence, however, that has been achieved by the anti-racial profiling movement of the late 1990s. That movement is the most powerful assault on policing in decades, spawning fatuous presidential pronouncements and a spate of ill-conceived bills in Congress, the states, and localities. Nearly every week, police officers from across the country traipse off at taxpayer expense to sundry racial profiling conferences (I've been to a few myself) to hear how racist they are.

All this has been achieved without a shred of credible evidence that so-called racial profiling is a widespread police practice.

The anti-profiling juggernaut is based on a patent fiction: that all racial and ethnic groups commit crime at the same rate. Oh c'mon, you say. No one believes that anymore. Well, listen to New Jersey senator Robert Torricelli, who asserted in a Senate hearing in March 2000 (and you're going to have to use creative language skills to understand him): "Statistically it cannot bear evidence to those who suggest that certain ethnic or racial groups disproportionately commit crimes. They do not."

Such willful blindness lies at the heart of the racial profiling crusade. The debate around racial profiling is ultimately a debate about how to interpret numbers--specifically, the high stop and arrest rates of minorities. The people screaming about racial profiling hope to persuade the public that if the police stop and arrest proportionally more blacks than whites, for example, it's because officers are racist.

But there's obviously another possible explanation: Blacks are stopped and arrested more than whites because they commit more crimes; so-called racial profiling has nothing to do with it.

To see how this debate plays out in practice, let's look at a statistic beloved of anti-police activists in New York. Blacks are 25 percent of New York City's population, but are the subject of 50 percent of the stop-and-frisks conducted by the New York Police Department.

Now this statistic provides clear evidence of police bias, as the activists claim, only if all groups commit crimes at equal rates.

But the facts are these: Blacks in New York are 13 times more likely to perpetrate a violent assault than whites, according to victim identifications of their assailants. Blacks commit about 62 percent of the assaults in New York City, so they are actually being frisked less than what their level of crime would predict.