The Legislatureís Joint Finance
Committee, which apparently has too much time on its hands, this
week voted to mandate that state police agencies collect traffic
stop data relating to so-called racial profiling (the governor and
full Legislature still need to weigh in). The impetus was a
commission report that found that African-Americans make up 43
percent of Wisconsinís prison population, yet are only 6 percent
of the stateís population.
Obviously, this racial disparity in the prison system is
concerning and should be examined. However, I question why the
Legislatureís focus on that matter revolves around scrutinizing
the police, rather than the offenders. Itís as if they are
implying that police might be the problem.
In addition, traffic stops donít usually result in prison
sentences anyway, unless something else is found, like drugs or
guns. So, whatís the impetus for this mandate, other than a few
anecdotal observations from a couple of legislators? In other words,
why are we putting a mandate on police agencies without indication
of a serious problem?
Meanwhile, no one wants to talk about what is a serious problem:
Why so many minorities are committing crimes that are serious enough
to land them in prison. Why not scrutinize the causes of crimes that
do land people in prison? That would be meaningful. However, some
politicians seem determined to focus on systems when it comes to
racial disparities in crime. They shy away from studying individual
behavior - in other words, getting at the problemís root. Theyíd
rather talk about the police, the prison system, Milwaukee Public
Schools and the child welfare system.
Politicians donít have the guts to tackle the real question
because they donít want to be called racists. You canít blame
them. The racism card gets tossed around too lightly.
Itís racist not to study why some minorities are committing
serious crimes disproportionate to their representation in the
population - crimes that land them in prison, not just get them
pulled over - because itís racist to think it doesnít matter
that we are, in a way, losing a generation of African-American
Itís a lot simpler, and safer, for some people to reflexively
imply itís the police who have the problem. Too many minorities
are committing crimes? It must be the cops! No, maybe the police
stop more black motorists in some communities because their
resources are properly directed into the neighborhoods with the
concentrated violent crime, which just so happen to be largely
minority. Itís good law enforcement. Maybe some minorities stopped
are violating traffic laws. Maybe they are more likely to be driving
cars with quality-of-life violations, such as missing back plates or
broken taillights. Who knows? The statistics wonít provide the
context that officers see in the field, so they will be meaningless
and probably misleading.
Let me save the legislators some time and money, and let them
know what their "study" will find. Some police agencies do
stop disproportionate numbers of African-Americans when compared to
African-Americansí representation in the population. (See above
The Office of Justice Assistance is supposed to use the traffic
stop data to "determine whether racial profiling is
occurring." But the data wonít be able to show that, anyway,
because it wonít be able to prove the cops acted in a racist
fashion versus reacting to violations of the law.
Some people will then use these non-shocking findings to argue
anyway that police are somehow racist. Now, I suppose there might be
some racial profiling going on in some scattered suburban
communities. But letís get serious. Itís not the real issue when
it comes to criminal behavior and racial disparities: Violent crime
is the real issue, and the fact that most of the stateís violent
crime largely occurs in a small geographic area in the city of
Milwaukee, perpetuated by a relatively small subset of individuals
caught up in retaliatory violence and who are, yes, sometimes
Why donít we focus on that?
I donít want police having to second-guess whether their stops
will result in them being unfairly called racists. I just want them
to get violent offenders, who prey on communities, off the streets.
I want them to use their law enforcement judgment about stops. I donít
want to deter good police instinct.
Democrats said the data collection will help minorities who have
the perception that racial profiling exists. No, it wonít offer
any proof of racist intent. So, it will just inflame people without
Itís pretty impossible to see how police could "racially
profile" a violent offender in an unacceptable manner, anyway.
Someone shoots a gun at someone else, or beats up someone else, or
kills someone else, and police, hopefully, solve the crime and
arrest that person. What difference does their race make?
In a time of stressed city budgets, I donít want police
agencies wasting their time documenting data that will just allow
people to make false political hay. I want them spending their time
and resources fighting crime.
(Jessica McBride is a member of the journalism
faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a blogger and a
Merton resident. Her column runs Saturdays in The Freeman.)