Bush talk cheap on racial profiling

April 27, 2001|By John D. Cohen

I'M CONFUSED. The Bush administration has promised to end racial profiling as we know it, but its actions would suggest that it really isn't that much of a priority.

First, Attorney General John Ashcroft has asked Congress to pass a law within six months that authorizes the Justice Department to pay for and conduct a study that has already been done.

Second, in its proposed budget, the administration has drastically reduced funding for the very programs that offer the best prospect to help police replace racial profiling with better targeting of criminals.

The Justice Department doesn't need to do another study to determine that racial profiling is a problem. Clearly it is. A department study released about a month ago reports that police are more likely to stop cars driven by African-Americans than those driven by whites.

Once stopped, African-American drivers are more likely to be arrested or issued tickets. And while African-American drivers and their cars are more likely to be searched after being stopped, these searches are less likely to uncover contraband.

And while the report stops short of saying that police officers regularly engage in racial profiling, several jurisdictions have already paid multimillion dollar civil judgments to people who are the victims of racial profiling.

The simple fact that a majority of Americans believe that racial profiling is commonplace undermines the credibility of our system of justice and threatens to exacerbate tensions between police and the public. Continuing calls for further study ring so much more hollow after the civil unrest that erupted in Cincinnati recently after the police shooting of an unarmed teen-ager there.

The Bush administration should take immediate and aggressive action to:

Establish national data collection standards.

Congress should use financial incentives to encourage law enforcement agencies to collect information about individual and traffic stops. The purpose is not to establish that profiling takes place, but to establish a way to hold agencies and individual officers accountable.

Police must see beyond their pride and recognize that data collection can serve as a valuable management and investigative tool. For years, police officers have recorded information regarding the people and vehicles they have stopped in their notebooks, on field interview cards and citations where they can't be easily searched.

By automating the same data, police can more effectively manage operations and target criminals.

Hold police accountable for inappropriate behavior.

Once collected, data regarding stops of cars and people must be carefully analyzed. Oversimplified analytical processes, such as simple demographics, create the risk that problems will be misidentified and innocent police officers will be falsely accused. Cops who act illegally should be replaced and prosecuted.

Expand technology-enhanced community policing efforts.

For decades, police have been held accountable for preventing crime in neighborhoods but have seldom been provided with the up-to-date information regarding the people, places and conditions that they need.

Yet the Bush administration has proposed to reduce by at least $125 million the funds available for state and local police to acquire information and communication technology. Congress must restore these critical funds.

The Clinton administration banned racial profiling by federal agencies. Now it's time for Congress and the Bush administration to encourage state and local police to take the next step. They won't make progress by ordering more studies or eliminating the initiatives that can give law enforcement the incentives and tools necessary to replace racial profiling with effective, data-driven targeting of criminals.

John D. Cohen, a former police officer, is director of the Progressive Policy Institute's Community Crime Fighting Project and president of a law enforcement consulting firm based in Rockville.

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