Racial Profiling: The Myth that Never Dies

by Jack Dunphy

The ACLU says the debate is over. Is it really?

More than seven years ago, Heather Mac Donald wrote “The Myth of Racial Profiling” for the Manhattan Institute’s quarterly, City Journal. “The anti-profiling crusade,” Mac Donald wrote, “thrives on an ignorance of policing and a willful blindness to the demographics of crime.” This ignorance persists, and last week saw the arrival of yet another shining example of it. But, unlike the bleating from such charlatans as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, this latest bit of ignorance comes cloaked in the legitimizing finery of Ivy League science.

Last Monday, the ACLU of Southern California released a report titled “A Study of Racially Disparate Outcomes in the Los Angeles Police Department,” by Ian Ayres, a professor at Yale Law School, and Jonathan Borowsky, formerly a research assistant at Yale Law School and currently a student at Harvard Law School. The study examined data collected during pedestrian and vehicle stops made by LAPD officers from July 2003 to June 2004. “We find prima facie evidence,” write Ayres and Borowsky, “that African Americans and Hispanics are over-stopped, over-frisked, over-searched, and over-arrested.” Among their more detailed conclusions are these:

Per 10,000 residents, the black stop rate is 3,400 stops higher than the white stop rate, and the Hispanic stop rate is almost 360 stops higher.

Relative to stopped whites, stopped blacks are 127% more likely and stopped Hispanics are 43% more likely to be frisked.

Relative to stopped whites, stopped blacks are 76% more likely and stopped Hispanics are 16% more likely to be searched.

Relative to stopped whites, stopped blacks are 29% more likely and stopped Hispanics are 32% more likely to be arrested.

Damning stuff, says the ACLU, which commissioned the study. In an accompanying letter to the Los Angeles police commission, ACLU staff attorney Peter Bibring writes that “Prof. Ayres’s report ends debate about the existence of the problem and validates the experience in communities of color of police interactions attributable to ‘driving while black’ or ‘driving while brown.’”


First of all, to claim that a study commissioned by an interest group, especially one as driven by ideology as the ACLU, is so irrefutably grounded in fact as to end debate on the matter is the very height of arrogance. Furthermore, the Ayres report has been neither peer-reviewed nor published in any scientific journal. That the report’s conclusions reflect the beliefs of the organization that paid for it should come as a surprise to no one. Indeed, the ACLU may have selected Mr. Ayres on the basis of his keen ability to detect racial bias nearly everywhere he looks. He has previously published books and articles on the hidden racial components involved in setting bail, purchasing automobiles, and tipping taxicab drivers.

Also, if the ACLU had truly been intent on ending the debate, they might have chosen a researcher whose résumé is less blemished by controversy. Last October, the Yale Daily News reported that Ayres’s latest book, Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-By-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart, contained passages that were “unattributed verbatim reproductions or nearly identical paraphrases of passages from various newspaper and magazine articles published in the last twenty years.” Ayres apologized for the “errors,” and said his publisher would make the appropriate changes in any future printings of the book.

Putting aside niggling questions of citations and quotations marks in his earlier work, Ayres’s report on the LAPD should stand or fall on its own merits. The reader can well imagine what my own opinion on the report might be, but my position as an LAPD officer may invite skepticism as to my objectivity. So I invited a respected academian to read the Ayres report and offer his opinion on its research methods and conclusions.

David Klinger is an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, and the author of Into the Kill Zone: A Cop’s Eye View of Deadly Force. He is himself a former police officer, having served with the LAPD and the Redmond, Wash. police department. But he is no shill for cops: he has testified as an expert witness both for and against police officers in civil cases arising from use-of-force incidents.

Klinger expressed a number of reservations on the Ayres report, beginning with its reliance on population figures in calculating what it labels as excessive stops, searches, and arrests of blacks and Hispanics in Los Angeles. In an e-mail to me, Klinger wrote that Ayres’s use of the racial and/or ethnic composition of a given area as expressed in census data is not sound. The key question is not who lives in a given area, says Klinger, but rather who is actually present in the area and interacting with the police.

For example, the Ayres report identifies two LAPD patrol divisions (out of eighteen) where the “stop rate” for blacks actually exceeded the number of blacks living in those areas. These disparities are easily explained, yet the report makes only a passing effort at doing so. “Residents can be stopped more than once,” write Ayres and Borowsky, “and non-residents who travel into a division can also be stopped.”

This last point bears further explication which Ayres and Borowsky do not provide. For example, they fail to account for the large number of homeless men living in downtown Los Angeles, where, according to their report, the number of blacks stopped exceeded the number of blacks living in the area. In recent years a large amount of unused office and industrial space in downtown L.A. has been converted into condominiums and lofts, the residents of which are for the most part white and fairly affluent. But the LAPD’s Central Division is also home to the city’s Skid Row, whose “residents” sleep outdoors or in homeless shelters and often go uncounted in census tabulations. These homeless men are overwhelmingly black, and their numbers include a large contingent of paroled felons and others with long criminal records. Consider: if you were a police officer in downtown Los Angeles, and you were interested in curtailing crime on your beat, on which group would you focus your efforts, the white, yuppie condo dwellers or the black ex-cons?

The situation is similar in Hollywood Division, where the black population is no more than six or seven percent. Unexamined in the Ayres report is the fact that Hollywood is home to many nightclubs that regularly attract large numbers of black gang members from South Central Los Angeles and elsewhere. These gang members are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the crimes committed in Hollywood, most especially violent crimes, and thus are far more likely to attract the attention of the police.

The biggest problem with the Ayres report, says Klinger, is that it presents no ethnic- or race-based crime information, i.e. the amount of crime actually committed by blacks and Hispanics. “Ayres admits this is a liability,” said Klinger in his e-mail to me, “but downplays it and uses ‘indirect benchmarks’ (last paragraph of page 27) to try to overcome this problem. I find this practice quite wanting.” Klinger went on to say that Ayres and Borowsky were “speaking beyond the data” in that they did not include in their analysis a critical variable that even they admit must be taken into account in order to draw valid conclusions.

Though LAPD Chief William Bratton was critical of the Ayres report, he has as yet failed to disclose the information Klinger found lacking, information that is readily available and would surely refute the report’s bottom line, to wit, that blacks in Los Angeles, and to a lesser extent Hispanics, commit crimes at a far greater rate than do whites, and are therefore subjected to a greater level of attention from police officers on patrol. If one accepts the murder rate as a benchmark for measuring violent crime, the racial disparities are indeed striking. In 2007, the LAPD investigated 394 murders. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of Los Angeles is 9.6 percent black, yet of those 394 murder victims, 134, or 34 percent, were black. And of the 354 identified murder suspects, 129 (36 percent) were black. The number of Hispanic murder victims and suspects roughly mirror the overall Hispanic population in Los Angeles. Hispanics make up 49 percent of the city’s population, and last year 54 percent of its murder victims and 55 percent of its murder suspects were also Hispanic. (Whites are about 29 percent of L.A.’s population, but in 2007 they made up just 8 percent of its murder victims and 7 percent of its known murder suspects. The nationwide murder figures reflect a similar racial disparity, as revealed here.)

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was once president of the L.A. chapter of the ACLU, and the rest of the city government is composed almost entirely of like-minded liberals. They are far too committed to politically correct ideals to disclose the cold and persistent facts that LAPD cops, indeed cops all over the country, know all too well: that the murder statistics cited above are also reflected in every other category of violent crime. Far from being over, the debate over racial profiling will continue for as long as these racial disparities in crime rates do.

— Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.