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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Profiling Myth Smashed

Culture Race

Yet Bush Justice Dept. still bashes N.J. law enforcement

According to a new study, black drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike are twice as likely to speed as white drivers, and are even more dominant among drivers breaking 90 miles per hour. This finding demolishes the myth of racial profiling.

Yet the Bush Justice Department is helping the anti-profiling juggernaut continue its destructive campaign against law enforcement. Will the politics of racial victimization trump the truth after all?

Until now, the anti-police crusade that travels under the banner of “ending racial profiling” has traded on ignorance. Its spokesmen charge that police, because of racism, stop “too many” minorities for traffic or more serious violations. In the wake of the new study, they can argue that no more.

To show that the police are stopping “too many” members of a group, you need to know, at a minimum, the rate of lawbreaking among that group (the “violator benchmark”). Only if the rate of stops or arrests greatly exceeds the rate of criminal behavior should our suspicions be raised.

But most profiling studies used only crude population measures as the benchmark — arguing, say, that if 24 percent of speeding stops on one stretch of highway were of black drivers, in a city or state whose population is 19 percent black, the police are over-stopping blacks. Such an analysis is clearly specious, since it fails to say what percentage of speeders are black — but the data needed to rebut it were not available.

Armed with the shoddy studies, the Clinton Justice Department slapped costly consent decrees on police departments across the country, requiring them to monitor cops’ every interaction with minorities.

No consent decree was more precious to the anti-police agenda than the one slapped on New Jersey. In 1999, then-Gov. Christie Whitman had declared her state’s highway troopers guilty of racial profiling, based on a study of consent searches that would earn an F in a freshman statistics class. (In a highway consent search, in officer asks a driver for permission to search his car, usually for drugs or weapons.)

The study, by the state Attorney General, lacked crucial data on stops, searches and arrests, and compensated for the lack by mixing data from wildly different time periods. Most fatally, it lacked any benchmark of the rate at which different racial groups transport illegal drugs on the Jersey Turnpike. Its conclusion that the troopers were searching “too many” blacks for drugs was therefore meaningless.

HEY, no problem! exclaimed the Justice Department. Here’s your consent decree and high-priced federal monitor; we’ll expect a lengthy report every three months on your progress in combating your officers’ bigotry.

Universally decried as racists, Jersey troopers started shunning discretionary law-enforcement activity. Consent searches on the turnpike dropped from 440 in 1999, the year that the anti-profiling campaign got in full swing, to a low of 11 in the six months that ended Oct. 31, 2001.

At the height of the drug war in 1988, the troopers filed 7,400 drug charges from the turnpike, mostly from consent searches. In 2000, they filed 370 drug charges. It is unlikely that drug trafficking on New Jersey’s main highway has seen any such drop.

“There’s a tremendous demoralizing effect of being guilty until proven innocent,” explains Dave Jones, vice president of the trooper union. “Anyone you interact with can claim you’ve made a race-based stop, and you spend years defending yourself.”

Arrests by state troopers have also been plummeting. Not surprisingly, murder jumped 65 percent from 2000 to 2001 in Newark, a major destination of drug traffickers. And state police have been invited back into Camden to fight its homicidal drug gangs.

BUT one thing did not change after the much-publicized consent decree: the proportion of blacks stopped on the turnpike for speeding still exceeded their proportion in the driving population. The New Jersey attorney general accused troopers of persisting in profiling.

In response, the troopers asked the attorney general to do the unthinkable: study speeding on the turnpike. If it turned out that all groups drive the same, as the reigning racial-profiling myths hold, they’d accept the consequences.

Well, we now know that the troopers were merely doing their jobs. According to the study commissioned by the New Jersey Attorney General (and leaked to The New York Times), blacks make up 16 percent of the drivers on the turnpike, and 25 percent of the speeders in the 65-mph zones, where profiling complaints are most common.

They speed twice as much as whites, and speed at reckless levels even more. Yet blacks are stopped less than their speeding behavior would predict — 23 percent of all stops.

The devastation wrought by this study to the anti-police agenda is catastrophic. It turns out that the police stop blacks more for speeding because they speed more. Race has nothing to do with it.

This is not a politically acceptable result. And the researchers knew it. They checked and rechecked their data. But the results always came out the same. So they prepared to publish their study this past January.

Not so fast! commanded the now-Bush justice Department. Manned by the same attorneys who had so eagerly snapped up the laughable New Jersey profiling report in 1999, Justice proceeded to pelt the researchers with a series of increasingly desperate objections.

The elegant study, designed by the Public Service Research Institute in Maryland, had taken photos with high-speed cameras and a radar gun of nearly 40,000 drivers on the turnpike. The researchers then showed the photos to a team of three evaluators, who (with no idea which drivers had been speeding) identified the driver’s race. The photos were then correlated with speeds.

The driver identifications are not reliable! whined Justice. So the researchers reran their analysis, using only photos about which all three evaluators had agreed. The ratios came out identically to before.

The data are incomplete! shouted Justice next. A third of the photos had been unreadable, due to windshield glare that interfered with the camera, or the driver’s seating position. Aha! said the feds. Those unused photos would change your results! It’s a strained argument. They could change the Results only if windshield glare or obstructive seating disproportionately affected one racial group. Clearly, they do not.

The institute has proposed a solution to the impasse: Let us submit the study to a peer-reviewed journal or a neutral body like the National Academy of Sciences. If a panel of our scientific peers determines the research to be sound, release the study.

No go, says the Justice Department. That study ain’t seeing the light of day.

But waiting in the wings are other racial-profiling studies by statisticians who actually understand the benchmark problem, covering North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York and Miami. Expect many of the results to support the Jersey data, since circumstantial evidence from traffic fatalities and drunk driving tests have long suggested different driving behaviors among different racial groups.

While racist cops do exist, and undoubtedly are responsible for isolated instances of racial profiling, the evidence shows that systematic profiling by police does not exist.

THE Justice Department should release the turnpike study now and let the scientific process run its course. Far more than politics is at stake here. The poisonous profiling debate, conducted on ignorance and faulty science, has strained police-community relations and made it more difficult for the police to protect law-abiding citizens in inner-city neighborhoods.

The sooner the truth about policing gets out, the more lives will be saved, and the more communities will be allowed to flourish freed from the yoke of crime.