In response to claims that police officers use race as a motivating factor in determining which motorists to pull over, President Bush recently instructed the federal government to begin compiling racial statistics on routine traffic stops across the country. News of the probe caused civil rights organizations to cheer and no small number of officers to get defensive.
Police officers are charged with safeguarding those basic rights we associate with happiness. Like the right to walk down the street without some thug clutching you by the neck and dragging you into an alley, or the right to own a house without some criminal slithering through your windows. That is serious business because it means officers must regularly confront that which terrifies us the most - death.
In the snap of a match, an officer might have to decide whether to pull his gun. It is difficult to be introspective in such situations. Simply, one must be intuitive.
Some officers would, therefore, have us believe that it is a bad thing to scrutinize these intuitions. From their initial resistance to placing cameras on police cruisers to the recent chaffing over Bush's intention to collect racial-profiling statistics, their reaction has been one of simple defensiveness and guilt. People don't like to admit that they make mistakes. They're also slow to accept the sort of scrutiny that diminishes their authority.
Or, as Joseph Akers, acting assistant director for the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (N.O.B.L.E.), put it, "many officers feel that compiling racial-profiling statistics is not an accurate way of doing good policing ... they feel it will be used against them in disciplinary cases and they feel a lot of their actions on the street are just."
In other words, a certain segment of officers maintain that strictly scrutinizing an officer's intuition can only mean giving up to criminals in the specific, and political correctness in general.
All of which seems terribly petty to me. Are our police systems so effective that they are beyond regular reviews? A recent four-year investigation by the Justice Department would indicate that there is still much work to be done. According to the probe, black drivers are significantly more likely than white drivers to be pulled over and ticketed.
The Justice Department's probe is just one in a string of recent studies providing evidence of racial disparities involved in random traffic stops.
A recent two-year study of stops along the New Jersey Turnpike revealed that 40 percent of the motorists pulled over were minorities. However, minorities accounted for three-fourths of the people searched by state troopers. Get it? Blacks were more than four times as likely to be searched than whites.
A study in Maryland revealed that 70 percent of the motorists pulled over and frisked on 1-95 were black.
Of course, the use of race or ethnicity as a substitute for suspicion, is hardly a new problem. While investigating the causes of the urban riots that detonated across the country in 1967, The Kerner Commission heard several witnesses testify about "the stopping of Negroes on foot or in cars without obvious basis."
Over two decades later, the DEA has institutionalized racial profiling as part of its training. In conjunction with its "war on drugs," federal drug enforcement agents teach local law enforcement personnel to use race as a basis for traffic stops in border areas that host a high level of drug trafficking.
There has been, from the urban riots of the late '60s to the "drug war" of recent times, a terrible progression in profiling. Officers have been conditioned to think of African Americans and Hispanics as, at best, economic inferiors; at worst, drug dealers and gang members. That some police officials are still in denial means only that their racist perceptions can become so deeply ingrained that they're not even aware that they exist.
Now we cannot pluck racism from the hearts of certain officers, just as we cannot scrape it from the marrow of our society. What we can do is understand that our police force is not beyond scrutiny.
That's why President Bush recently directed federal agencies to compile demographic statistics on traffic stops. By taking such reasonable precautions, we may protect those basic freedoms that we associate with equality and justice for all.