Last Saturday, the New York Times ran a quirky story about a program that subjected police-academy recruits to “shock therapy” by taking them on a tour of the Holocaust Museum. The tour is supposed to teach the police a lesson about the dangers of stereotyping. It features depictions of Nazi policemen cruelly torturing Jews, and the public’s indifference to the abuse. Of course, the lessons of the Holocaust are well worth contemplating. Yet this program itself embodies a troubling stereotype–of policemen at latent racists. (For more on our tendency to abuse the Holocaust metaphor, see my 2001 piece, “Two Americas.”)
The real problem with policing nowadays is that a largely bogus accusation of racial profiling has hamstrung the ability of police to fight crime. The whole apparatus of the anti- “racial profiling” lobby (maybe we should call it the anti-cop lobby) is exposed in Heather Mac Donald’s wonderful book, Are Cops Racist? As Mac Donald shows, cops in many cities can’t even talk to someone on the street without having to fill out a form listing his ethnicity. (The forms include categories like “Samoan.”)
The problem with the whole anti-racial-profiling campaign is that it is based on a faulty assumption. The police are called racist if they stop blacks, or any other group, at a greater rate than that group is represented in the population. But crime itself is disproportionally distributed among groups. The real baseline for judging racial profiling should be the crime rate of different ethnic groups, not the distribution of those groups across the population. The Bush Justice Department could help solve this problem by ditching the bogus Clinton standards for profiling and putting actual crime rates in their place. But the issue is apparently too politically hot to handle. At any rate, the Mac Donald book is eye opening and devastating. It also shows how the whole anti-profiling crusade has hamstrung the domestic war on terror. This book is well worth a read.