Racial profiling on the Jersey Turnpike: the issue has brought down some of the Garden State’s highest echelons of law enforcement, embarrassed a recent governor of the state to the point she fled to Washington, D.C., and driven another thorn into the side of America’s racial comity.
Two years ago charges of State Police picking on black and Hispanic drivers for stops and ticketing had reached a crescendo and the Justice Department was leaning on the state officialdom to stop racial profiling and to study the driving habits of the races. Were they found to be the same among races, then the disparity of police stops would support the profiling allegations.
The New Jersey attorney general’s office commissioned a $500,000 study. High speed photography would snap images of drivers in a variety of locations along the turnpike, on the upper reaches where the speed limit is 55 and on the lower reaches where it is 65. Researchers showed photos of 38,747 drivers to teams of three evaluators whose task was to determine the driver’s race. The identifying teams did not know which among the photos were of speeders. At first, if two of the three evaluators agreed, the photo stayed in the pool. This eliminated some 12,000 photos.
But of the 26,334 remaining, it was found that nearly twice the percentage of blacks as whites were speeders in the 65 mile limit zone. The percentage of violators by race was nearly the same in the 55-mile zone. Speeding was classified as 15 miles per hour over the posted limit, and the higher the speed the greater the racial disparity.
Unsatisfied, the Justice Department reportedly asked the evaluators to go back to the drawing board: two out of three might be flawed (shades of the hanging chads of Florida). So the researchers eliminated all photos except those on which there was complete unanimity on the question of driver race. Three out of three. Result of the fine-tuning: no difference.
The New York Times reports the Justice Department has asked the New Jersey attorney general not to release the report. Federal attorney Mark Posner of the Justice Department’s special litigation section is quoted as writing he fears the results may have been skewed somehow by factors such as glare on windshields.
The New Jersey State Trooper’s Union is calling for release of the report, noting it was funded by taxpayers’ money. Kenneth McClelland, president of the troopers union, is quoted as saying, “The Justice Department doesn’t want this study out there, because it flies in the face of everything they said about profiling. And it proves what we said, that the vast majority of troopers were stopping people because of the way they drove, not because of their race.”
How Justice deals with windshield glare is yet to be learned, but as one grasshopper said to another as they were approached by an Oldsmobile on the turnpike: “This takes guts.”
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