Challenging Orthodoxy: Galileo Comes To The Jersey Turnpike
April 15, 2002
By M.W. Guzy
The New Jersey Turnpike is to racial profiling what St. Louis is to beer. The dispute over profiling began with allegations that the New Jersey State Police were stopping minority motorists at a rate disproportionate to their numbers in the population. A glance at the demographics revealed that blacks constitute 16 percent of the drivers on the roadway but about a quarter of those stopped. This fact was announced as proof positive that the highway cops were racist and engendered a nationwide debate over the hazards of "Driving While Black." Now, a study conducted on the same turnpike has cast the phenomenon in a new light.
Writing in the City Journal, Heather Mac Donald reports that the Public Research Institute researched speeding on the highway. It seems that even after a Department of Justice consent decree and a federal regulator were put in place, troopers continued to stop a higher percentage of black motorists for speeding. Frustrated by this development, the state's attorney general commissioned the institute to study behavior on the thoroughfare.
Researchers set up high-speed cameras to photograph drivers and radar guns to monitor the speed of some 40,000 vehicles. Only motorists traveling 15 mph or more over the limit were considered "speeders." To ensure objectivity, photos of the drivers were given to an independent panel of evaluators who classified them by race. The evaluators had no way of knowing which photos depicted drivers who had been speeding.
After correlating race with behavior, the study found that black motorists "are twice as likely to speed as white drivers, and are even more dominant among drivers breaking 90 miles per hour." In short, blacks represented 25 percent of the total violators and 23 percent of those stopped. It appears that behavior, not race, is prompting the cops to make traffic stops.
In terms of profiling, the findings are provocative but not conclusive. They do not, as Mac Donald concludes, prove that racial profiling is a "myth." The research makes no effort to measure violations other than speeding, nor does it address the number of motorists and autos searched or the demeanor of the officers toward various offenders -- all of which are potential factors in profiling complaints. But it does effectively refute the notion that blacks are being cited for speeding on the turnpike because of their ethnicity.
At first blush, you'd think that the law-and-order crowd at the Department of Justice would be delighted to learn that New Jersey cops were enforcing the speed limit without bias. Hardly. With John Ashcroft at the helm, Justice attempted to bury the report. In response to superficial objections to the study, the institute offered an ultimatum: Submit its work to a "peer-reviewed journal or ... the National Academy of Sciences" with the proviso that the results would be made public if the methodology was determined to be sound. No deal. Eventually, the report was published on the Internet -- which forced the hand of the state's attorney general, who belatedly announced its official release.
The controversy has little to say about science and much to do with politics. Those who attempted to suppress the study demonstrate the venerable human tendency to view reality through the operative prejudice of their day.
Mac Donald claims, "The medieval Vatican could not have been more threatened had Galileo offered photographic proof of the solar system." Her conclusion might be hyperbolic, but her metaphor is apt.
Once profiling became an established "fact," it became something of a cottage industry. Activists who decried the practice made the talk show circuit and were quoted in the nation's newspapers and magazines. Politicians of every stripe fell over themselves to demonstrate racial sensitivity by passing hastily crafted legislation to prevent further abuse. These people invested heavily in the phenomenon and were none too happy to see their dividends threatened by uncomfortable science that challenged the premise.
Further studies are now under way to better determine to what extent racial profiling affects police interaction with minority communities. Their findings may or may not validate the reality of the phenomenon, but they merit free and open discussion. While Galileo might have been a heretic, he was also right.
©2002 St. Louis Post-Dispatch