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Reporting While Wrong

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Reporting While Wrong

September 26, 2005
Urban PolicyOtherCrime

The New York Times peddles more ’driving while black’ malarkey

The New York Times’s bad faith regarding the police has reached a new low. On August 24, a front-page article claimed that the Justice Department had tried to suppress damning evidence of racial profiling by the nation’s police forces. In fact, it is the Times that is suppressing evidence.

For years, activists have argued that some drivers face a heightened risk of being stopped by bigoted cops. David Harris, a University of Toledo law professor and ubiquitous police critic, provided a classic statement of the “Driving While Black” conceit in 1999: “Anyone who is African-American is automatically suspect during every drive to work, the store, or a friend’s house.” Owing to this “automatic suspicion,” Harris posited in his 2002 book, Profiles in Injustice, “pretextual stops will be used against African-Americans and Hispanics . . . out of proportion to their numbers in the driving population.”

The “Driving While Black” belief is pervasive, powerful, and false. According to a survey of 80,000 civilians conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (an arm of the Justice Department) in 2002, an identical proportion of white, black, and Hispanic drivers - 9 percent - were stopped by the police in the previous year. And the stop rate for blacks was lower during the day, when officers can more readily determine a driver’s race, than at night. These results demolish the claim that minorities are disproportionately subject to “pretextual stops.”

Clearly, these findings should be news of a high order - so that must be why the Times buried them in paragraph 11 of its front-page story (and omitted the day-night disparity entirely). But not only did the Times conceal the study’s import, it also had the temerity to spin the survey as confirming the racial-profiling myth. Indeed, the BJS study will “add grist to the debate over using racial and ethnic data in law enforcement,” the newspaper asserted, because it provided evidence of “the aggressive police treatment of black and Hispanic drivers.”

What is this evidence for racist policing, in the paper’s view? The Times bases its charge on two findings from the survey: According to driver self-reports, blacks and Hispanics were more likely to have their persons or cars searched than white drivers, and were more likely to be subjected to the threat or use of force by the officer who stopped them. The survey defines force as pushing, grabbing, or hitting; a typical force incident, characterized by the survey respondent as “excessive,” consisted of an officer grabbing the respondent by the arm as he was fleeing the scene and pushing him against his car. Specifically, black drivers said that they or their cars were searched 10.2 percent of the time following a stop, Hispanic drivers 11.4 percent of the time, and white drivers 3.5 percent of the time. As for police threats or use of force, 2.4 percent of Hispanic drivers, 2.7 percent of black drivers, and 0.8 percent of white drivers claimed that force had been threatened or used against them.

None of these findings establishes prejudicial treatment of minorities. The Times, for instance, does not reveal that blacks and Hispanics were far more likely to be arrested following a stop: Blacks were 11 percent of all stopped drivers, but 24 percent of all arrested drivers; Hispanics, 9.5 percent of all stopped drivers, but 18.4 percent of all arrested drivers; and whites, 76.5 percent of all stopped drivers, but 58 percent of arrested drivers. The higher black and Hispanic arrest rates undoubtedly result from their higher crime rates. The national black murder rate, for example, is seven times higher than that of all other races combined, and the black robbery rate eight times higher. Though the FBI does not keep national crime data on Hispanics, local police statistics usually put the Hispanic crime rate between the black and white crime rates. These differential crime rates mean that when the police run a computer search on black and Hispanic drivers following a stop, they are far more likely to turn up outstanding arrest warrants than for white drivers.

These higher arrest rates in turn naturally result in higher search rates: Officers routinely search civilians incident to an arrest. Moreover, the higher crime rates among blacks and Hispanics mean a greater likelihood that evidence of a crime, such as weapons or drugs, may be in plain view, thereby triggering an arrest and a search.

The higher incidence of police threats or use of force against blacks and Hispanics - assuming the self-reports are accurate - is also more likely to result from driver conduct than from police bias. Criminology studies have long found that the greatest predictor of police behavior is civilian behavior. Threaten or challenge an officer and you are likely to be challenged back. The 2002 BJS survey concluded that persons who provoked the police were significantly more likely to experience the threat or use of force by the officer than persons who did not. Thus, 24 percent of persons involved in a police force incident admitted to cursing at, insulting, or threatening the officer. The number of people who actually engaged in such behavior is probably higher still.

Speculatively speaking, it is likely that a greater percentage of blacks and Hispanics challenged or threatened a police officer than did whites. Why? Because for the last decade and a half, blacks and Hispanics have been fed a steady diet of police-racism stories. They have been told again and again that if an officer stops them, it is because of their race, not their conduct. Police officers have come to expect that the first words out of a black driver’s mouth following a traffic stop will be, “You only stopped me because I’m black.” The chance that such an attitude will escalate into more hostile behavior is much greater than zero. In addition, the differential crime rates mean that a higher proportion of black and Hispanic drivers will have a crime in their past that could lead them to resist the officer making the stop.

The BJS authors explicitly disavowed the possibility of using the survey data to conclude that driver race, rather than conduct, resulted in different search or force rates. The Times, however, shows no such reluctance. After belatedly acknowledging the identical stop rates among different racial and ethnic groups, the paper hastens to add that “what happened once the police made a stop differed markedly depending on race and ethnicity.” The Times then goes on to posit a Bush administration cover-up of these allegedly compromising findings. According to the Times’s narrative, political appointees in the Justice Department demoted the Bureau of Justice Statistics director, Lawrence Greenfeld, after he refused to delete references to the differential search and force rates from a press release announcing the 2002 survey. And in a further manifestation of political meddling, per the paper, the Justice Department opted not to issue the contested press release at all, but simply posted the report online - as it has done for nearly 70 percent of the reports released in 2004 and 2005. That was another detail not disclosed in the Times’s story


So what? A press release that focused on the search and arrest rates would be seriously misleading. Yet the Times’s fake scoop produced the usual reaction: eager mimicry. Within 24 hours, news outlets ranging from National Public Radio to the St. Petersburg Times had reproduced the story. One career cop-basher, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, called for a congressional investigation into the alleged “cover-up.” And the NAACP claimed that the study confirmed the “truth about racial profiling.”

The notion that the police target blacks and Hispanics because of their skin color has damaged urban life. Thanks to racial-data-collection mandates, every officer knows that if he has “too many” interactions with minority citizens - including responding to crime calls or preventing a mugging - he could face a bias charge. Some officers will decide that it’s wiser for their careers not to fight crime aggressively, leaving law-abiding inner-city residents at the mercy of thugs. The drumbeat against the cops increases the hostility against them, poisoning the trust needed for the most effective police work. The New York Times�s endless crusade against phantom police racism ensures that the poorest neighborhoods will continue to be held back by fear and violence.