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Stop Persecuting the Police

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Stop Persecuting the Police

The Wall Street Journal February 5, 2001
Urban PolicyOther

The Clinton Justice Department committed some of its worst abuses in the name of fighting "racial discrimination," and the racial slander against John Ashcroft aimed to intimidate and stop him from correcting those abuses. Now confirmed as attorney general, Mr. Ashcroft should waste no time in halting the previous administration’s war on the police.

For the past seven years, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has saddled America’s police departments with federal monitors, on the ground that they discriminate against minorities in enforcement and hiring. Recently, the U.S. attorney in New York accused the city’s police department of racism in its stop-and-frisk activity. But a look at Justice’s legal actions shows how ill-founded its crusade against the police has been.

Last May, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Justice Department to pay Torrance, Calif., $1.7 million in attorneys’ fees for a police bias suit the trial court had called "frivolous and unreasonable." The alleged police wrongdoing? They screened for reading and writing skills (albeit at a ninth-grade level) in hiring exams. Such tests, argued Justice, have a disparate impact on minorities and have no legitimate job purpose.

The department was right on the first charge, but wildly off base on the second. Any cognitive job requirement does disproportionately eliminate blacks and Hispanics, due to their lagging educational performance. But as the court recognized, analytic skills are essential to policing. Officers must digest written material, understand complex procedural laws, and produce clear reports for use in court.

Despite its defeat in Torrance, Justice continued to threaten police departments with litigation unless they replaced traditional hiring exams with federally approved tests. These all but excise cognitive questions in favor of true/false "personality" measures such as: "I would like to be a race car driver," or "I would like to go to a party every night if I could." Such states as New York, New Jersey and Missouri caved in. Many jurisdictions have ceased cognitive testing pre-emptively.

The Justice Department’s second line of attack charged police departments with offenses ranging from racial profiling to brutality. In 1997, under threat of a federal lawsuit, Pittsburgh signed a consent decree agreeing to federal monitoring of its officers’ every enforcement action. Compliance has likely cost between $4 million and $5 million. Yet the basis of action against the Pittsburgh police has been disintegrating.

To demonstrate police abuse, federal negotiators had relied on 57 suits against the force brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. None had been litigated when Pittsburgh accepted federal oversight. Since then, 13 cases have been resolved, all vindicating the police. Nevertheless, some officers, facing sanctions under the consent decree should they arrest "too many" minorities in a month, say they now arrest people by color, according to the Los Angeles Times. If an officer’s racial arrest statistics don’t match the city’s demographics, he will stop arresting minorities and nab only whites so his arrest profile becomes racially "proportionate."

In Columbus, Ohio, Justice is suing the police for alleged racial profiling in car stops. It cooked the books to do so. It excluded from its sample 30% of all stops because the drivers lived in the suburbs (and happened to be 90% white). But the police have no idea where a driver resides when they make a stop; the Justice Department apparently taxes the police with clairvoyance as well as racism.

Justice’s charges against the New York City Police Department are just as spurious. It alleges that the NYPD stops and frisks too many minorities. But in 1998, violent-crime victims in New York were eight times more likely to identify assailants as black than white. Blacks were 13 times more likely than whites to commit a violent assault, according to victims. The police go where crime is -- mostly in minority neighborhoods, where the criminals the police stop will perforce be preponderantly minority. The NYPD actually stops minorities at a rate lower than the racial distribution of crime would suggest: In 1998, blacks were 62% of the assailants identified by victims and 52% of all stop-and-frisk subjects.

There are rogue officers, but the extraordinary remedy of federal intervention is rarely warranted. This isn’t the ’60s, when local police routinely trampled civil rights. Police departments are more professional and more committed to rooting out abuse than ever before. Fatal shootings by New York City officers, for example, are at the lowest point in 25 years.

George W. Bush is pledged to restore local authority. Getting Justice off the backs of state and city police officials is a good place to start. Even the ACLU’s own racial-profiling expert, testifying before Mr. Ashcroft’s Senate constitutional subcommittee last year, acknowledged how crippling federal monitors are to police departments. Mr. Ashcroft should end all enforcement actions against the police, unless evidence of wrongdoing exists. He should also review consent decrees, to ensure that they end at the earliest date.

Charges of police racism are usually calculated distractions from more difficult problems: low educational achievement and high crime rates among minorities. Mr. Bush would perform invaluable service if he were to speak honestly about crime and race, rather than take the comfortable path of knocking the messenger.

This piece originally appeared in Wall Street Journal