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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Junk Science and Racial Profiling

Culture Race

New Jersey pols have worked themselves into a mediagenic fit over alleged racism on the state’s highways. Their current target: former Attorney General Peter Verniero, whom they charge with concealing knowledge of racial profiling in order to win a seat on the state’s highest court.

The campaign against Verniero is demagogic and based on junk science. But don’t shed a tear for Justice Verniero. However unfairly he is being treated, he behaved far worse toward the New Jersey State Police in 1999 when he declared the police force guilty of racial discrimination.

The accusation against Verniero assumes the existence of incontrovertible evidence of racial profiling. The recently concluded and laughably overheated New Jersey Senate hearings spent countless hours establishing that Verniero had been apprised of this “evidence” years ago and failed to act.

The only problem is this: The alleged evidence that Verniero is accused of ignoring is worthless. The attorney general’s office failed to act on it for good reason, for the office had rightly concluded the data failed to prove the anti-police activists’ case.

New Jersey profiling crusaders invoke two proofs for racial profiling: a 1996 trial court decision declaring the state police guilty of “institutional racism” and police data on consent searches. The 1996 case, State v. Soto, threw out charges against 17 black drug traffickers arrested on the New Jersey Turnpike, on the ground that the state police pulled over “too many” blacks.

But the question must always be: “Too many” compared to what? If black drivers violate traffic laws at a higher rate, black drivers will be better represented in the ranks of traffic violators than they are in the driving population. Additionally, if more police patrol on weekend nights, when the percentage of black drivers rises, the percentage of black drivers stopped will rise.

The defense in Soto defined as a traffic violator anyone traveling six miles or more over the speed limit, making virtually all drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike eligible to be stopped. But the police focus their attention on the most egregious violators; it is that population that provides the relevant benchmark for traffic stops. Are blacks overrepresented there?

This is an absolutely taboo subject among the profiling crowd, but traffic accident, drunken-driving and fatality data suggest that that may be the case.

For three years, the New Jersey attorney general’s office appealed the Soto decision, rightly arguing that the defense’s wildly inadequate violator benchmark failed to establish racial profiling and ignored police deployment patterns. (Verniero dropped the appeal only when it became politically expedient to do so.) Nevertheless, the Soto decision is now being treated as gospel.

Search data is equally unhelpful to the anti-police crowd. Yes, black drivers in New Jersey and elsewhere are searched more often than their representation in raw population numbers would suggest. But if they are also transporting drugs at a higher rate, then the search numbers merely reflect good law enforcement.

State and federal drug trafficking data unremittingly point to the overrepresentation of minorities in the drug trade. Anti-police activists argue arrest and conviction data merely reflect police racism.

But independent indicators confirm the minority dominance of the drug trade. Between 1976 and 1994, for example, about 65% of the victims and known perpetrators of drug-turf homicides nationally were black. Likewise, victims and perpetrators in fatal brawls in which participants were under the influence of drugs were about 60% black. These figures match the roughly 60% of drug offenders in state prisons nationally who are black.

Once a trooper makes a traffic stop, he has a wealth of non-racial cues to work with in deciding whether to search a vehicle. Often the driver and passengers on a drug run don’t know each others’ names, or they provide completely dissimilar accounts of where they are going and why. Are they nervous? Are they driving a rental vehicle, or one from a drug-source state? Is the spare tire in the back seat?

If, in deciding whom to search, the police were crudely targeting blacks, instead of traffickers, presumably they would find drugs at a lower rate on blacks than on whites. But the hit rates for contraband nationally and in New Jersey have consistently been slightly higher for blacks than for whites. (Only the most recent data-set out of New Jersey contradicts that pattern.)

Some individual officers in New Jersey and elsewhere have undoubtedly abused their discretion in conducting traffic stops and searches. More certainly, many officers inexcusably fail to treat civilians with courtesy and respect. But, as the U.S. General Accounting Office has determined, no traffic-stop study to date proves racial profiling is occurring on a systematic basis.

Attorney General Peter Verniero knew the case against the State Police was bogus. Yet in April 1999, hungrily eyeing the Supreme Court, he made his now famous accusation of racism, contradicting everything he had argued over the previous years. That he may now face impeachment for concealing non-existent evidence is poetic justice for a man willing to sell out the police for his own political ends.