Victims in the war back home

April 20, 1999|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Wars on crime have collateral damage, too.

That was not the theme of Attorney General Janet Reno's speech to the National Press Club last week, but it might as well have been.

In her strongest statement yet on the subject, Ms. Reno announced new steps to restore trust between police and minority communities. Among other moves, she planned to include questions about police behavior in the Department of Justice's annual Crime Victimization Survey. It would be the federal government's first national measure of how often police abuses occur.

To no one's surprise, police groups opposed the move, which made me wonder what they are trying to hide. We expect the military to account for its collateral. Why shouldn't the police?

"Collateral damage," the military's euphemism for the accidental destruction of civilian lives and property in war, sounds cynical.

Yet, its sober tone addresses a cruel fact of war: A certain number of people are going to be killed or injured, even by those who are trying to help them.

So it is with wars on crime. How many innocent people are we willing to abuse as we pursue criminals?

While Ms. Reno spoke in Washington, thousands marched in New York City to protest the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant who died in a hail of 41 bullets fired by police who mistook him for a rape suspect.

As with most such racial eruptions, the rift is not just about Diallo. It is about Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's get-tough crackdowns on crimes varying in seriousness from drugs to jaywalking.

While New York City has become a national model for the reduction of crime and the restoration of street civility in the 1990s, it also has become a symbol for long-standing resentments between police and some of those whom they are assigned to serve and protect. Under Mr. Giuliani, for example, a disproportionate number of innocent African-Americans and Hispanics have been stopped for each one who has been caught with a gun, drugs or other contraband.

Similar findings have turned up in other states. Recently, law enforcement officials shut down 11 miles of the New Jersey Turnpike to re-enact a 1998 shooting that raised a controversy over racial "profiling" by state police.

"Profiling" is the controversial practice of using race or ethnicity as clues to criminality. A New Jersey judge concluded in 1996 that troopers were illegally targeting black motorists, after finding blacks were 4.85 times as likely as whites to be stopped.

When Maryland state police agreed as part of a court settlement to track the race of drivers who troopers stopped and searched on a stretch of Interstate 95, they found blacks comprised only 17 percent of the drivers but more than 70 percent of the police stops.

Ms. Reno endorsed a bill by Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, to require all police to record the race, among other characteristics, of every person they stop on the highway.

Similar legislation passed the House last year, then died in the Senate. Fierce opposition came from such groups as the National Association of Police Organizations. Robert Scully, its executive director, fears such data will be exploited by "the cottage industry of lawyers who make their living suing police officers.

Perhaps, but those lawyers represent people who have a right to be represented.

When Mr. Giuliani criticizes the rise in irresponsible rhetoric around the Diallo case, he has a point. But, he, too, has contributed to the rhetoric by, among other excesses, referring to the protesters as "silly."

Sillier is the belief that one can have an effective war on crime when the heaviest collateral damage is being felt by the people who need the protecting.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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