With racial profiling, even research is suspect
Controversy erupts over a study that tracks driving habits among racial groups.
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Indeed, even as Mr. Ashcroft promises a federal probe if Congress doesn't act, he's got the rudiments of one in Raleigh: The Justice Department gave $470,000 toward the Tar Heel study.Skip to next paragraph
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In conducting their probe, Zingraff and his team at first tried to monitor drivers' speed - and the people highway patrol officers would pull over - by using radar guns. But truckers sent out warnings on their CB radios.
So, driving 65 miles per hour, the researchers used stop watches and notebooks to clock some 7,000 speeders as they went zipping by the van along the dusty state highways of Johnston County and other thoroughfares. As they did, a graduate student would dutifully jot down each driver's race: black, white, or other.
An earlier analysis of arrest records found that minorities are definitely pulled over more than whites in the state. In 1998, for instance, the figures showed that a middle-aged black man is 23 percent more likely to be given a traffic citation than a middle-aged white man. Worse, a black man is 64 percent more likely to be searched. Black women, similarly, are more likely to be given a citation, but just as likely as white women to have their cars searched.
The Zingraff research on the different driving habits of the races hasn't yet been released. The researchers are convinced racial profiling does exist. They're just not sure if the reason is a form of institutional racism. "In the long run, I think we're going to learn that the disparity that does exist is a result of a lot of other things than active racial animus," says Zingraff.
While some police agencies around the country have been reluctant to participate in such studies - in part because of the paperwork involved - the state Highway Patrol in North Carolina has been working with the Zingraff team. They meet with researchers weekly to go over questions and data.
Zingraff says police departments are wise to do so. "Law enforcement should have some idea why their numbers look the way they do," he says. "If they don't, they're just allowing themselves to be explained by others using partial information. That's crazy."
First Sgt. Jeff Winstead of the Highway Patrol says that making a rash conclusion would be easy after looking at the traffic stop numbers. Many times, people are just looking to explain away their own bad driving by blaming the cops, he says.
But as Mr. Winstead points out, the variables are daunting: driving conditions, daytime or nighttime, young drivers or old drivers, new cars or late-model cars. Plus, at night, it's hard to see a driver's skin color from a roadside perch. "Raw data is dangerous, and we were most concerned about people getting ahold of this information and drawing the wrong conclusions," he says.
In fact, that's already happening, though Zingraff's study is four months from publication. "It is interesting that people are beginning to disavow the findings before we even know ourselves what they are," says Zingraff.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society