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Racial profiling sidesteps the real issue

By JESSICA McBRIDE

May 30, 2009

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 males.

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 explanation).

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 African-American.

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 necessary context.

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.)

 


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