Racial profiling is a touchy issue
4/19/2001 12:00:00 AM - George Will
WASHINGTON--It is former Sen. Eugene McCarthy's axiom: Anything said three times in Washington becomes a fact. So it now is a fact, universally attested and detested, that racial profiling is a widespread police tactic. Everyone says so, especially since the disturbances in Cincinnati set off a riot of television chatter, many of the chatterers having no direct knowledge of that city, or of policing.
Even George W. Bush has made an obligatory genuflection at the altar of the conventional wisdom--``Racial profiling is wrong and we will end it in America''--and Attorney General John Ashcroft is encouraging the rapidly increasing trend of states requiring police to record racial data on traffic stops and searches. So who is Heather Mac Donald to cast decisive doubt on the prevalence, even the existence, of racial profiling?
She is the indispensable journalist. If you question that characterization, you have not read her just-published collection of essays, ``The Burden of Bad Ideas: How Modern Intellectuals Misshape Our Society.'' Read it after you read her latest dissection of such an idea, ``The Myth of Racial Profiling,'' in City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute.
Mac Donald distinguishes, as anti-racial profiling crusaders rarely do, between ``hard'' and ``soft'' profiling. The latter uses race as one factor among others in estimating criminal suspiciousness. As when, Mac Donald says, police have intelligence that in the Northeast drug-shipping corridor many traffickers are Jamaicans favoring Nissan Pathfinders.
Charges of racial profiling usually arise from data about traffic stops, data that supposedly vindicate complaints that minorities are victimized merely because they are ``driving while black.'' But data about ``disproportionate'' stops of minority drivers are worthless without additional information that would be necessary to substantiate the charge that ``too many'' minority drivers are being stopped, searched and arrested.
Most anti-profilers concede that most stops arise from an actual traffic violation (e.g., the Pathfinder is speeding, or has visible illegal defects, such as nonfunctioning lights). So, Mac Donald writes, it is pertinent to know whether disproportionate numbers of minorities drive recklessly, or drive defective vehicles, or drive at times when, or in places where, police are, for good law enforcement reasons, particularly attentive. And the validity of the data purporting to document ``disproportion'' depends on comparisons of the amount of driving done by different racial groups, so that stops per man-mile, rather than just stops per person, could be compared. Do minorities commit more of the kinds of traffic violations that most attract police attention? Data (about intoxication, and involvement in injury and fatality accidents) suggest so.
Mac Donald says that (BEG ITAL)of course there is ``soft'' profiling in the sense that some vehicles are stopped because, in addition to some infraction, the driver (BEG ITAL)and the kind of vehicle (BEG ITAL)and the direction (BEG ITAL)and the number and type of occupants fit the profile of a drug courier. Yet many anti-profilers insist, as does Sen. Robert Torricelli from the corridor state of New Jersey, that there is no evidence ``that certain ethnic or racial groups disproportionately commit crimes. They do not.''
But of course they do. And once a traffic stop is made, any subsequent search of the vehicle is apt to be triggered by behavioral cues (nervousness, conflicting stories) on the part of the vehicle's occupants, cues having nothing to do with race or ethnicity.
In 1999, during hysteria about profiling, then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman fired New Jersey's state police superintendent because he uttered a truism often confirmed by the Drug Enforcement Administration--that minority groups dominate cocaine and marijuana trafficking. Mac Donald reports that New Jersey's state police ``no longer distribute a typical felony offender profile to their officers'' because such profiles might contribute to what the state's attorney general calls ``inappropriate stereotypes'' about criminals. Here ``inappropriate'' is a synonym not for ``inaccurate'' but for ``inconvenient.''
It is an awkward fact, but it is a fact even though there may not be three Washingtonians rash enough to utter it: Felons are not evenly distributed across society's demographic groups. Many individuals and groups specialize in hurling accusations of racism, and police become vulnerable to such accusations when they concentrate their efforts where crime is.
If that accusation begins to control policing, public safety will suffer--especially the safety of minorities in violent and drug-infested neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods, where the primary complaint against the police usually is that they are too few in number and too tentative against predators, are not the neighborhoods where anti-profiling crusaders are apt to live.