Heather Mac Donald explains how the critics of ’racial profiling’ made the skies less safe.
I’VE been amusing myself recently with the following experiment: I call up the most strident anti-police activists of recent years, people like Georgetown law professor David Cole, who argues that every aspect of the criminal-justice system is racist.
I ask these police critics the following question: Suppose that in the wake of 9/11, the FBI decides to check out recent graduates of U.S. flight schools to see who else may be plotting to use planes as weapons. Which students should the FBI investigate — all the would-be pilots, or a subset? Without exception, I get the following answer: “The FBI should investigate everyone.”
“Everyone?” I respond, “that’s a big number. You’d be stretching the resources of the FBI dangerously thin. Wouldn’t you look,” I ask, “at a student from Saudi Arabia more closely than you would at someone from Kentucky?”
Nope, comes the reply. The FBI has to investigate everyone equally to avoid racism. One civil-liberties law professor even insisted: “I’m sure the FBI has the resources to investigate everybody.”
I have drawn the following conclusions from my experiment: First, these self-described policing experts know absolutely nothing about police work. Any police investigation has to use known facts to narrow the scope of the inquiry, since manpower is finite.
In this case, the FBI would be nuts not to use the nationalities and religious identities of the 19 hijackers to search for their co-conspirators among flight school alumni, since the hijackers themselves define their mission in religious terms.
Yet despite their obvious ignorance, the police critics in my canvass and others like them have controlled the public discourse about law enforcement for the last half-decade, creating a public relations and policy nightmare for cops.
I also conclude from my experiment that if these professional police-bashers exert the same influence over counter-terrorism as they have over domestic policing, we’re all in trouble. Indeed, we may have missed an opportunity to avoid the terror of 9/11 because of their baneful effects.
SINCE THE ‘60s, anti-cop sentiment has been a fixture of elite U.S. culture. Never, however, did it reach the prominence achieved by the anti-racial profiling movement of the late ‘90s.
That movement is the most powerful assault on policing in decades, spawning fatuous presidential pronouncements and a spate of ill-conceived bills in Congress, the states and localities. Nearly every week, police officers from across the country traipse off at taxpayer expense to sundry racial profiling conferences (I’ve been to a few myself) to hear how racist they are. All this has been achieved without a shred of credible evidence that so-called racial profiling is a widespread police practice.
The anti-profiling juggernaut is based on a patent fiction: that all racial and ethnic groups commit crime at the same rate.
Such willful blindness lies at the heart of the racial profiling crusade. The debate around racial profiling is ultimately a debate about how to interpret numbers—specifically, the high stop and arrest rates of minorities. The people screaming about racial profiling hope to persuade the public that if the police stop and arrest proportionally more blacks than whites, for example, it’s because officers are racist.
BUT there’s obviously another possible explanation: Blacks are stopped and arrested more than whites because they commit more crimes; “racial profiling” has nothing to do with it. To see how this debate plays out in practice, let’s look at a statistic beloved of anti-police activists in New York.
Blacks are 25 percent of New York City’s population, but are the subject of 50 percent of the stop-and-frisks conducted by the NYPD. This statistic provides clear evidence of police bias, as the activists claim, only if all groups commit crimes at equal rates.
But the facts are these: Blacks in New York are 13 times more likely to perpetrate a violent assault than whites, according to victim identifications of their assailants. Blacks commit about 62 percent of assaults in the city; they’re actually being frisked less than what their level of crime would predict.
Crime data and community complaints about crime, not racism, send the police to minority neighborhoods; once the police are deployed there, “racial profiling” would be useless, because most people on the street are of the same race. Instead, the police look at suspicious behavior and location —a known drug corner, say — in determining whom to stop. This is just good police work.
AFTER the Rodney King beating, activists strove mightily to make police brutality a national issue. They ran up against a hard fact: Real police brutality — the conscious use of excessive force — is thankfully a rare, rare occurrence these days.
No problem; the anti-police crowd merely redefined the term to encompass anything they don’t like. Thus, for several years, the press has routinely conflated stop-and-frisks and alleged racial profiling with brutality. Even asking questions of civilians in minority neighborhoods has been presented as a form of police abuse.
The result of this campaign has been officer demoralization and unnecessarily strained police- community relations in minority neighborhoods. In those cities where the anti-police rhetoric has been particularly virulent, such as Cincinnati or Los Angeles, the cops have pulled back from discretionary activity, like getting guns off the street. Crime has shot through the roof.
The fictions and exaggerations of contemporary police-bashing, including the assault on racial profiling, would be bad enough if they resulted only in more domestic lawlessness. But I fear that they have also left us vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
IN 1996, Vice President Al Gore chaired a commission to strengthen airline defenses against terrorism. When word leaked out that the commission was considering a profiling system that would take into account an air passenger’s national origin and ethnicity, among other factors, in assessing the security risk he posed, the anti-law enforcement, as well as the Arab, lobby went ballistic.
The counsel for the ACLU fired off an op-ed to the Washington Post complaining that “profiles select people who fit the stereotype of a terrorist. They frequently discriminate on the basis of race, religion or national origin.”
But a stereotype in this case is nothing more than a compilation of facts about who has attacked American interests in the past and who, given what we know about the networks that promote anti-American terrorism, is most likely to do so in the future. It is al Qaeda and its brethren that have defined themselves by religion and regional interest, not American law enforcement.
The hyperbole of contemporary police-bashing has survived the terrorist destruction intact. In less than 24 hours after the planes had demolished the World Trade Center, newspapers and TV stations across the country started comparing America’s likely response to the attack to the mass internment of Japanese Americans in World War II.
I asked University of Toledo law professor David Harris (the loudest voice in the anti-profiling crusade) whether the NYPD could rationally choose to focus its terrorism intelligence-gathering on mosques in Brooklyn or Catholic churches in Bensonhurst. “’Why would I want to speculate on that?” he shot back, ducking the question. I asked discrimination-law professor Melissa Cole if there’s an equal chance of a Scandinavian and Arab Islamic cell member. “I don’t see why not,” she said brightly.
ONE of my favorite headlines came on Sept. 24, in the New York Times: “War on Terrorism Stirs Memories of Internment.” This, at a time when the government had detained 75 immigrants, or .001 percent of the Arab population in the country.
The fury over the detention of suspects was nearly eclipsed, however, by the uproar over Attorney General John Ashcroft’s plan to interview 5,000 young males who arrived from terrorism-sponsoring states over the last two years. That’s 1 percent of the Arab-American population.
A “dragnet approach that is likely to magnify concerns of racial and ethnic profiling,” brays the ACLU. Not a day passes when the media do not righteously report the indignation and supposed panic that this plan has stirred in the Muslim community.
Time for a reality check. Being interviewed in a noncustodial setting by the police, with the option to cut off the interview at any time, is light years from constituting a violation of civil liberties. No one has a right not ever to be asked a question by the police. (Of course, the immigrants whom Ashcroft wants to talk to are not even U.S. citizens, but we’ll leave that objection aside.)
If such voluntary interviews were the constitutional enormities that the press implies, no crime could ever be solved. The police have always canvassed local communities for leads after serious felonies.
SO far, Attorney General Ashcroft appears admirably indifferent to the hyperventilating anti-cop crowd as he plots his post-9/11 strategy. But don’t assume that some corners of the government are not second-guessing themselves about potential political fallout.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service, for example, has made no effort to track down Middle Eastern visa violators unless asked to do so by the FBI, for fear of the racial profiling charge, reports the New York Times.