Experts debate role, frequency of police profiling


If police data show racial disparities, it’s not because of racial profiling, according to Manhattan Institute Fellow Heather MacDonald. “It’s not police-driven,” she said. “The fact is this is victim-driven.”

On Tuesday, September 29, MacDonald and Professor Ronald Sullivan debated the extent to which racial profiling is and should be involved in policing. The debate was held in the Ropes Gray Room and co-sponsored by the Federalist Society and the American Constitution Society. Sullivan is a clinical professor of law and the director of the Harvard Criminal Justice Institute. He has written extensively on issues of criminal justice and race. MacDonald is a contributing editor to City Journal and the author of the book Are Cops Racist? Beyond the workings of the police and the anti-profiling lobby, she has studied homelessness, educational policy, and business improvement districts.

According to MacDonald, the notion that policing is racially-biased is flawed, and this notion hurts law-abiding minorities most of all. She pointed to data from New York, where she said that 98 percent of shootings are committed by blacks or Hispanics, to show that violent crime perpetrators are inordinately likely to be minorities. “The police cannot respond to crime without disproportionate involvement in minority neighborhoods,” she said. “This is not their choice. They are responding to crime.”

MacDonald said that concern about racial profiling is actually detrimental to minorities, since many victims of crime are minorities themselves. “It is the activists who impose a racial sense on policing, and they are dangerously wrong to do so,” she said.

Sullivan sought to avoid the “wrongheaded syllogism” that people who engage in racial profiling are racist. Instead, he painted racial profiling as the result of “race thinking.” “Race thinking is an interpretive phenomenon,” Sullivan said. “We reduce individuals to stereotypes. Police are not immune to this phenomenon.”

He supported his position with data of his own. Sullivan said that blacks represent 12 percent of the population and 13 percent of drug users, but make up 57 percent of inmates convicted at the state level for drug crimes. “Blacks are so over-policed that they are disproportionately investigated, convicted and sentenced,” he said. Sullivan suggested that if the police investigated drug use on local college campuses, the numbers might become more balanced. MacDonald called the drug figures “highly misleading.” She said that it is not who is using drugs that is important, but who is dealing them.

“It is open air drug dealing in cities that causes people to be in fear,” MacDonald said. “Outside drug dealing is very dangerous. That’s what the crack wars were about.” She added that police respond to incidents involving drug use on the streets rather than in investment banks like the now-defunct Lehman Brothers both because that is where calls come from and that is where drug dealing is most dangerous. “When you have open air dealing, you have turf,” MacDonald said.

“It’s like a blood bath.” Sullivan pointed out the differences in treatment he would expect upper-class drug users and dealers to receive if the police were called to investigate them. “I reject the notion that if the police got calls at Lehman Brothers, they would go in as heavy-handed as they would in predominantly black neighborhoods,” he said.
MacDonald responded with a quip. “I agree,” she said. “But dealers at Lehman Brothers are not armed.” Beyond crime statistics, Sullivan described the effects of racial profiling by highlighting elements of police conduct that minorities are subject to which never get written down. “I have been spread-eagled on a police car more times than most people here,” he said. “I have also never committed a crime to my knowledge.”

Sullivan called attention to potential constitutional violations that using racial profiling in policing could raise. “Far too many are willing to violate the Constitution on the backs of others,” he said. “I think that is something you should think about, what a certain type of policing does to the Constitution.”

The type of policing that Sullivan advocates includes stops based on a particularized suspicion. “If you police well based on individual suspicion, you do better policing,” he said.

MacDonald said that she was in agreement with Sullivan over the value of individualized suspicion and consideration for constitutional rights in police work. “I argue that is overwhelmingly how policing is done,” she said. According to MacDonald, the vast majority of police use locational or behavioral cues, not race, to determine whom to investigate. “The real cop problem is not racism but bad manners,” she said. “Cops get street-hardened and cynical, but that is no excuse for failing to behave with manners.”

Ultimately, Sullivan was skeptical of the extent to which police use valid techniques rather than racial profiling to conduct their business. “People want to live in safety. Heather and I differ in how we get there,” he said. “I say through good policing, not stereotypical policing.”


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