Racial Profiling: The Myth that Never Dies

Jack Dunphy, National Review Online, Oct. 27, 2008

More than seven years ago, Heather Mac Donald wrote “The Myth of Racial Profiling“ for the Manhattan Institute’s quarterly, City Journal. “The anti-profiling crusade,” Mac Donald wrote, “thrives on an ignorance of policing and a willful blindness to the demographics of crime.” This ignorance persists, and last week saw the arrival of yet another shining example of it. But, unlike the bleating from such charlatans as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, this latest bit of ignorance comes cloaked in the legitimizing finery of Ivy League science.

Last Monday, the ACLU of Southern California released a report titled “A Study of Racially Disparate Outcomes in the Los Angeles Police Department,” by Ian Ayres, a professor at Yale Law School, and Jonathan Borowsky, formerly a research assistant at Yale Law School and currently a student at Harvard Law School. The study examined data collected during pedestrian and vehicle stops made by LAPD officers from July 2003 to June 2004. “We find prima facie evidence,” write Ayres and Borowsky, “that African Americans and Hispanics are over-stopped, over-frisked, over-searched, and over-arrested.” Among their more detailed conclusions are these:

* Per 10,000 residents, the black stop rate is 3,400 stops higher than the white stop rate, and the Hispanic stop rate is almost 360 stops higher.

* Relative to stopped whites, stopped blacks are 127% more likely and stopped Hispanics are 43% more likely to be frisked.

* Relative to stopped whites, stopped blacks are 76% more likely and stopped Hispanics are 16% more likely to be searched.

* Relative to stopped whites, stopped blacks are 29% more likely and stopped Hispanics are 32% more likely to be arrested.

Damning stuff, says the ACLU, which commissioned the study. In an accompanying letter to the Los Angeles police commission, ACLU staff attorney Peter Bibring writes that “Prof. Ayres’s report ends debate about the existence of the problem and validates the experience in communities of color of police interactions attributable to ‘driving while black’ or ‘driving while brown.’”

Rubbish.

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David Klinger is an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri—St. Louis, and the author of Into the Kill Zone: A Cop’s Eye View of Deadly Force. He is himself a former police officer, having served with the LAPD and the Redmond, Wash. police department. But he is no shill for cops: he has testified as an expert witness both for and against police officers in civil cases arising from use-of-force incidents.

Klinger expressed a number of reservations on the Ayres report, beginning with its reliance on population figures in calculating what it labels as excessive stops, searches, and arrests of blacks and Hispanics in Los Angeles. In an e-mail to me, Klinger wrote that Ayres’s use of the racial and/or ethnic composition of a given area as expressed in census data is not sound. The key question is not who lives in a given area, says Klinger, but rather who is actually present in the area and interacting with the police.

For example, the Ayres report identifies two LAPD patrol divisions (out of eighteen) where the “stop rate” for blacks actually exceeded the number of blacks living in those areas. These disparities are easily explained, yet the report makes only a passing effort at doing so. “Residents can be stopped more than once,” write Ayres and Borowsky, “and non-residents who travel into a division can also be stopped.”

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The biggest problem with the Ayres report, says Klinger, is that it presents no ethnic- or race-based crime information, i.e. the amount of crime actually committed by blacks and Hispanics. “Ayres admits this is a liability,” said Klinger in his e-mail to me, “but downplays it and uses ‘indirect benchmarks’ (last paragraph of page 27) to try to overcome this problem. I find this practice quite wanting.” Klinger went on to say that Ayres and Borowsky were “speaking beyond the data” in that they did not include in their analysis a critical variable that even they admit must be taken into account in order to draw valid conclusions.

Though LAPD Chief William Bratton was critical of the Ayres report, he has as yet failed to disclose the information Klinger found lacking, information that is readily available and would surely refute the report’s bottom line, to wit, that blacks in Los Angeles, and to a lesser extent Hispanics, commit crimes at a far greater rate than do whites, and are therefore subjected to a greater level of attention from police officers on patrol. If one accepts the murder rate as a benchmark for measuring violent crime, the racial disparities are indeed striking. In 2007, the LAPD investigated 394 murders. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of Los Angeles is 9.6 percent black, yet of those 394 murder victims, 134, or 34 percent, were black. And of the 354 identified murder suspects, 129 (36 percent) were black. The number of Hispanic murder victims and suspects roughly mirror the overall Hispanic population in Los Angeles. Hispanics make up 49 percent of the city’s population, and last year 54 percent of its murder victims and 55 percent of its murder suspects were also Hispanic. (Whites are about 29 percent of L.A.’s population, but in 2007 they made up just 8 percent of its murder victims and 7 percent of its known murder suspects. The nationwide murder figures reflect a similar racial disparity, as revealed here.)

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