Racial Profiling or Reckless Driving?

Some New Jersey state troopers were gleeful at the results of a study that purports to show that blacks are twice as likely as whites to speed down their state's highways. This seemed to vindicate the troopers oft-repeated contention that they don't racially profile, and are simply doing good police work when they stop more blacks than whites on the open highway. Civil rights leaders furiously denounced the study commissioned by New Jersey state officials. Justice Department officials called the study faulty, flawed, and poorly designed, and quickly moved to block its public release.

But even if the study is not flawed, and more blacks than whites do violate speeding laws, there are two colossal problems with the study. It found that 3 percent of blacks exceeded the 65-mile limit, while half as many white drivers exceeded the speed limit. But this means that 97 percent of black motorists observed the lawful speed limit. If so, how does this explain why a New Jersey judge in 1996 tossed out a slew of drug possession cases because New Jersey troopers illegally targeted black motorists? Or, why a Justice Department study found that blacks account for 70 percent of all routine traffic stops, and a similar review of New Jersey state police practices found that 75 percent of motorists arrested on the New Jersey Turnpike in two months in 1997 were minorities.

New Jersey may be the worst, but it's hardly the only profiling offender. A similar study by the ACLU in 2001 in California found that black and Latino motorists are far more likely than whites to be stopped by the California Highway Patrol and their cars searched.

The New Jersey study also doesn't explain why a flock of prominent black and Latino actors, entertainers, business leaders, and even some state legislators and House representatives complain that police on the roads have racially harassed them. They all surely could not have been hauled over while recklessly speeding to political sessions and business meetings.

However, the far bigger problem with the study is that it reinforces public suspicions that racial profiling is mostly myth and is a ploy used by black leaders to let black lawbreakers off the hook. This perception could wreak havoc on the titanic battle that civil rights leaders continue to wage to eliminate racial profiling.

Before the September 11 terror attacks, they were making some headway in that battle. In its report "Police Practices and Civil Rights in America" issued in 1999, the Civil Rights Commission denounced racial profiling and called on police departments to immediately fire any officer guilty of racial profiling. By then the Justice Department had already initiated investigations of police departments in several cities for civil rights violations, mostly against young black and Latino males. It brokered consent decrees with city officials in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles to rein in the blatant, and well documented abusive practices of police departments in those cities. The target of police misconduct was mostly blacks and Latinos, and traffic stops were often cited as triggering sometimes-fatal confrontations.

There was even some hope that Congress might finally get off its duff and seriously consider passing the Traffic Stops Statistics Study Act introduced by Michigan Democrat John Conyers in 1999 and 2000. The bill requires the Justice Department to compile figures from local police departments by race on highway traffic stops. The data would document why a driver was stopped, and whether an arrest was made or not. The Justice Department could use the figures to determine how pervasive racial profiling is. The bill does not force local police agencies to collect data and imposes no sanctions on those that refuse to compile stats. In 2001, Conyers got Senate help from Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, when he introduced a bill that permits alleged victims of racial profiling to sue to get injunctions to halt the practice.

The New Jersey study could do much to torpedo the anti-profiling effort. Only a handful of states have passed legislation requiring local police agencies to keep racial statistics on traffic stops. Many state legislators have already backpedaled fast away from introducing or supporting legislation to tackle the problem. In some states, anti-racial profiling bills have either died in legislative committees or been decisively voted down. And with many congresspersons quietly or openly claiming that profiling can be a useful weapon against terrorists, the Feingold-Conyers bills, at least for now, are hopelessly buried. President Bush and Attorney-General John Ashcroft probably won't help much here. Despite their much-publicized pre-911 pledges to push and prod Congress and police agencies to end profiling, they are now stone silent on the issue.

The great fear and danger is that the New Jersey study will further embolden the legion of public officials and law enforcement agencies who don't believe that police profile minorities, to foot-drag on, or derail, the anti-profiling fight. No wonder there was glee among some New Jersey troopers.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website:

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