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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Crime data and community complaints about crime, not racism, send the police to minority neighborhoods; once the police are deployed there, so-called racial profiling would be useless, because most people on the street are of the same race. Instead, the police look at suspicious behavior and location--a known drug corner, say--in determining whom to stop. This is just good police work.

The arguments in the drug arena are just as specious. In April 1999, then-New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman famously accused the New Jersey state troopers of racial profiling on the highways. The value of this accusation to the racial profiling juggernaut cannot be overestimated. Only problem was, Whitman's allegation was based on junk science.

According to the state's data, black drivers constitute 53 percent of consensual drug searches conducted on the New Jersey turnpike, but only about 13 percent of the turnpike population. Again, this looks like racial profiling if whites and blacks transport drugs at equal rates. But if blacks are more likely to engage in drug trafficking than whites, and if troopers can recognize the non-racial signs of a drug courier once they have pulled over a car, then a higher search rate for blacks merely reflects good law enforcement, and likely has nothing to do with race.

The Whitman study was silent on the question of what the actual incidence of drug trafficking is among different racial groups, so its conclusion that the police are searching "too many" blacks is worthless.

IS THERE EVIDENCE that minorities dominate the retail drug trade in this country? Absolutely. Police investigations and the resulting arrests consistently reveal minority control of local drug markets. Critics dismiss drug arrest data as a function of officer racism. But homicide data, which no one has yet had the gall to attribute to police bias, also demonstrate racial imbalance in the drug trade. The proportion of black victims and killers in drug turf- war homicides--about 65 percent--actually exceeds the proportion of drug offenders in state prisons who are black--about 60 percent. Unless white dealers are notably more pacifistic than their black counterparts, the drug homicide data suggest that blacks are in fact overrepresented among traffickers.

The second condition necessary to explain the higher search rate for black drivers is an officer's ability to detect drug trafficking from behavioral cues, regardless of race. And indeed, once the police have pulled over a car, they have plenty of color-blind ways to spot a drug vehicle.

-Do the driver and passengers know each others' names, for example, or agree on their destination, origin, or reason for travel? Drug couriers almost never do.

-Is the driver nervous?

-Does his amount of luggage match his itinerary?

-Are there signs that the compartments of the car have been turned into drug and gun chambers?

The fact that the hit rates for finding contraband have tended to be equal on black and white drivers suggests that the police are using the same set of cues to search members of each group. If those cues correlate with black drivers more often than white, we shouldn't blame the police. Yet that is precisely what the anti-racial profiling crusade does, in an attempt to deflect attention from the overwhelming problem of minority crime.

To sum up, the first tenet of recent anti-police discourse is the false notion that crime commission is spread evenly across society.

The second is hyperbole. After the Rodney King beating, activists strove mightily to make police brutality a national issue. They ran up against a hard fact: Real police brutality--the conscious use of excessive force--is thankfully a rare, rare occurrence these days.

No problem; the anti-police crowd merely redefined the term to encompass anything they don't like. Thus, for the last several years, the press has routinely conflated stop-and-frisks and alleged racial profiling with brutality. Even asking questions of civilians in minority neighborhoods has been presented as a form of police abuse. The entire gamut of activist organizations has jumped on the bandwagon; Amnesty International preposterously denounced the United States in 1999 for police brutality, a cause it elevated over human rights abuses in China.

The result of this campaign against the police has been officer demoralization and unnecessarily strained police-community relations in minority neighborhoods. In those cities where the anti-police rhetoric has been particularly virulent, such as Cincinnati or Los Angeles, the cops have pulled back from discretionary activity, like getting guns off the street.

Crime has shot through the roof.