- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 15, 2001

DWB driving while black is the latest manifestation of our intractable racial divide. Cops allegedly stop black motorists more than whites, looking for illegal drugs and other mischief. The easy explanation? Bigoted cops just like to do this stuff.

It´s not that simple, of course. Directing the attorney general to study the problem and come up with solutions, President Bush has put profiling high on his agenda, saying, "It´s wrong, and we will not do it in America. We will not hinder the work of our nation´s brave police officers. But by stopping the abuses of a few, we will add to the public confidence our police officers earn and deserve."

Now that´s a balanced statement, playing to all sides. No tradeoffs to worry about here. We will repair the black perception that they are being singled out, yet maintain police morale and vigorous law enforcement. In cities like Los Angeles, however, active policing has fallen to zip because every officer is worried about whether his history of arrests is racially correct. Crime has taken a predictable jump up, largely at the expense of black victims.

While there´s real content to the black perception of harassment and injustice, the handy explanation of racism is faulty. The root of the problem traces back to the government´s disastrous war on drugs: Cops aren´t out to get blacks so much as to get drug dealers, creating collateral damage for black motorists.

Allow me to explain. First, study after study supports the proposition that the criminal justice system, overall, is not systematically racist. With occasional exceptions, virtually everyone gets a fair shake in the U.S. justice system. So it´s a myth that our modern legal system is rotten with discrimination. Greater numbers of black police officers and black judges, for example, have failed to reduce the racial disparities in our prisons and elsewhere in the justice system. Studies also find that if anything, a black felony defendant is more likely to be acquitted in a jury trial than his white counterpart.

Second, there is a real problem of disproportionate stops of black motorists. A new study by three economists at the University of Pennsylvania, John Knowles and two colleagues, demonstrates that cops stop black motorists at a higher rate than white motorists because it´s the best way to get a lot of drug arrests and convictions, not because of racism. How do the authors know this?

They studied the 1990s data on highway stops by the Maryland State Police. Indeed, black motorists were stopped at a rate 31/2 times that for white motorists. Traffic studies and police testimony show blacks and whites are not distinguishable by their driving behavior. Despite the relatively high search rate for black motorists, the police found contraband in the same percentage for both races, about 1 in 3 searches. So there is "statistical discrimination," we might say, rather than race prejudice at work.

It´s a fact, unpleasant as it may be to admit, that blacks are disproportionately involved in the drug trade and good police work takes this into account. So at one level, it´s fine 'n´ dandy: The evidence clears the Maryland cops of racism. After exhaustive analysis, the authors even conclude there is evidence for bias against white and Hispanic motorists rather than black.

But even if the study is representative and correct, all is not well because 2 of 3 stops are criminally unproductive for both races. More importantly, innocent black motorists are stopped 31/2 times more often than their white counterparts. That´s the real problem and a justified beef by the black community.

There are lawsuits against state governments for harassment of innocent black motorists, including the state of Maryland. While the law is currently unsettled, it does not prohibit the use of race in police work, provided there is a reasonable linkage between race and likely criminal involvement. Yet such "statistical discrimination," innocent of prejudice though it may be, is under attack. The American Civil Liberties Union, for one, demands an end to racial profiling in police work. The cost would be reduced police efficiency and higher crime.

The president and the rest of us want to improve "the just and equal administration of our nation´s laws." The real place to start would be the war on drugs. We have been grinding away at the dope trade for decades and to what end? Futility and disaster. The disproportionate harassment of black motorists is just one of its evil consequences.

If government backed off, the DWB problem would diminish and race relations would improve, much to the surprise of many.

Morgan Reynolds is director of the Criminal Justice Center at the National Center for Policy Analysis.

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