New facts on racial profiling

For years, activists, community leaders, and ordinary citizens have said minorities in this country are treated unfairly by police and the criminal-justice system. Now, a flood of recent studies and reports are proving them correct.

Last week, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights released a report suggesting that African-American and Hispanic citizens are treated more harshly than their white counterparts at all levels of the criminal-justice system, from arrests to likelihood and length of imprisonment. And on April 25, a groundbreaking study financed by the Justice Department examining the juvenile justice system reached the same stark conclusion.

These reports, among others, join a growing body of evidence on race and police practices, particularly racial profiling.

Law-enforcement agencies have generally responded to accusations of profiling by arguing for its rationality. Because blacks commit crimes at a higher rate than whites, the argument goes, profiling is justified. A more subtle explanation for profiling suggests that since poverty-stricken communities feel the impact of crime most severely, and because these areas are also composed disproportionately of minorities, use of race as a factor in selecting potential lawbreakers is an inevitable byproduct of sound police practices.

Extensive new research on profiling, however, has exposed this rationale as a myth. In the April 25 juvenile-justice report, minorities were at least twice as likely as whites to be sentenced to prison, even comparing youth with similar criminal histories.

Similarly, a recent General Accounting Office study showed that minorities were far more likely than whites to face intrusive searches by US Customs. In fact, Customs Service searches did not correlate with the likelihood of discovering contraband. In at least one category, the disparity was startling: The report found that black women were 9 times more likely to be x-rayed after a frisk or pat-down in 1997 and 1998, but actually "were less than half as likely to be found carrying contraband as white women."

New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's study of the "stop and frisk" practices in New York City, using a complex statistical model, found that 50 percent of all police stops were of black New Yorkers, though African-Americans account for only 25 percent of the city's population. Even taking into account the demographics of each police precinct and the crime rate by race, the report found black New Yorkers were still twice as likely to be stopped and frisked as whites.

These data support one obvious conclusion: Race is not a rational factor to use in law enforcement. When people of color are targeted for stops and searches, police are no more likely - in some cases, much less likely - to find them breaking the law. But by focusing on skin color, the police create a self-fulfilling prophesy, as minorities will be "over policed" compared with their white counterparts. The disparity by race in arrests, convictions, and jail sentences will be exacerbated - and perhaps feed stereotypes that created the disparity in the first place. Deteriorating police and community relations, of course, are the destructive byproduct of this depressing formula.

The need for law-enforcement agencies to collect and make public data about their work is most important in repairing damage done by racial profiling. Strong public interest in evaluating the work of police and duplicating the recent research can help root out irrational or pernicious police practices.

In New Jersey, a lawsuit was necessary to start the process; other states and cities are considering laws to require data collection. The Traffic Stops Statistics Study Act (2000) has been introduced in Congress to provide for collection and analysis of data on traffic violations nationwide. Society gets the type of policing it demands. It is our civic responsibility to make certain political leaders react constructively to these new findings, support further research, and demand law enforcement that focuses on individual suspicion - not group stereotypes.

*Jeffrey Prescott is a staff attorney with the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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