Picture, if you will, Officer Dunphy out on patrol somewhere in Los Angeles. At the wheel of my black-and-white Ford Police Interceptor (alas, one of the last) I drive the streets, alert to outward signs of crime, villainy, and disorder. Up ahead, I see traffic slow and then stop for pedestrians crossing in a crosswalk. I do likewise, but am soon horrified to see the pedestrians nearly flattened by a car going in the opposite direction, the driver apparently unaware or uncaring of the calamity he has narrowly avoided.
I make a U-turn and — after checking the license number to make sure the car isn’t stolen or otherwise wanted — initiate a traffic stop. Even after all these many years on the job, the traffic stop is for me among the more harrowing experiences. Without the benefit of cover or concealment, I have to approach a driver (and often passengers) about whom I have little or no information and whose hands I cannot see. For anyone with malign intentions toward the police, it’s an ideal setting to carry out an attack. (See this YouTube video for an extreme example of why traffic stops still give me the willies.)
But in our present hypothetical, I approach the offending driver without the eruption of gunfire, and I ask to see his driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. And here is where things get sticky. Yes, the encounter thus far has been free of violence, but there is about to be drama.
As it happens, our driver in this scenario is black, and he entertains the notion that I have stopped him not for the flagrant traffic violation I have just witnessed, but rather for the racial animus he assumes to be lurking deep within me. We engage in an extended conversation, during which the driver repeats and repeats his accusations that I have stopped him without just cause, and in between these accusations are inserted aspersions on my character, manhood, and heritage. I try to point out to the man that — as is the case in most traffic stops — I had no idea of his race until the moment I walked up to his car.
At long last he signs the citation I have written, promising to see me in traffic court. And in due season that encounter occurs, first with me telling the judge my recollection of the pedestrians’ narrow escape from being crushed under the wheels of the driver’s car, and then with the driver denying it all and repeating his accusation that I had stopped him merely because he is black, though now mercifully omitting the ad hominem attacks.
In his wisdom, the judge doesn’t buy the driver’s story, finding him guilty and offering instruction on how to pay the resulting fine. The driver goes on his way, I go on mine. And that should be the end of it.
But it isn’t. I soon learn that the driver, having found no satisfaction in court, has now filed a complaint against me alleging “racial profiling,” known in LAPD parlance as “biased policing.” That the matter was settled in traffic court is of no concern to the people at internal affairs, or to the five members of the police commission — the civilian body that oversees the LAPD. Appointed by the mayor and selected more for their “diversity” than their abilities, the commissioners are uniformly liberal, and not one of them has even one minute’s worth of practical police experience. As such, they of course share the driver’s suspicion that the LAPD is teeming with closeted racists who exult in abusing people of color.
The allegation against me is assigned to a team of internal affairs investigators specially selected and trained for just this sort of complaint. They interview the driver, who denies his guilt of the traffic violation — the finding by the traffic court judge notwithstanding — and who repeats the charge that I stopped him on the basis of my prejudice against people with his color of skin. The investigators pore over records of my previous enforcement efforts, looking for evidence among previous citations and arrests that I have inordinately concentrated those efforts on people whose complexions differ from my own. Finding none, they at last interview me, and I repeat my traffic court testimony as to the near-annihilation of the pedestrians by the careless driver.
With the investigation now complete, it is submitted to my commanding officer, who then categorizes the complaint either as “unfounded,” or — if he is the cautious type (and most of them are) — as “insufficient evidence to adjudicate.” And this vexes those police commissioners to no end.
It is to the commissioners’ great annoyance that only one LAPD officer has ever been disciplined for racial profiling, this despite the thousands of such complaints the department has received. They find it simply unfathomable that the department’s internal affairs apparatus has failed to ferret out the racists they just know are out there on patrol.
But now the LAPD will try a different approach, one that has the support of the police commission and the department brass and even the Los Angeles Police Protective League — the labor union that represents rank-and-file cops up to the rank of lieutenant. (Full disclosure: I am a member.) Yes, this new way to handle racial profiling complaints enjoys the support of all the players – all, except for the cops themselves. They think it’s a joke, and the innovation is therefore doomed to fail.
Under a three-year pilot program, a person making an accusation of racial profiling will have the opportunity to discuss the incident with the involved officer, with the meeting taking place in the presence of a neutral mediator. The accused officer must agree to the meeting as well, with his incentive to participate being that if he does so in good faith, the complaint is then closed with no mark against his record.
According to LAPD Commander Rick Webb, the goal of the pilot program is to have officers and their accusers “stand in each other’s shoes.” Commander Webb is a decent and well-meaning man, but it’s been a long, long time since he’s stood in the shoes of a patrol officer, especially one getting an earful from someone he’s stopped for a traffic violation. Based on my conversations with colleagues, there won’t be many takers for this program.
Consider: if an officer is innocent of racial profiling, he has little to fear (or at least one would hope) from a full investigation into any complaint alleging it. More to the point, an officer has little to gain from sitting down in a room and hearing the same harangue he heard when he stopped the complainant in the first place. And if an officer is so dark-hearted as to actually engage in racial profiling, does anyone think he will go into such a meeting and admit to it? Does anyone think his heart will be changed by it? It’s beyond absurd.
It’s been twelve years since Heather Mac Donald wrote “The Myth of Racial Profiling” for City Journal, and in the ensuing years she’s written on the topic many times, as have I (here and here, for example). Yet the myth refuses to die.
This three-year pilot program will leave the police commissioners unsatisfied, and at its conclusion they will once again be looking for ways to root out the racial profilers they will still be no less certain would be found in the department’s ranks if they could but devise a way to identify them.
They won’t appreciate it, but I have some advice for the police commissioners: perceptions of racial profiling will end when the incidence of crime is equal among all racial groups. Until that day, they might just as well be looking for unicorns.