[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/07/28/art.cro.oba.gat.jpg caption="President Obama, Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates will meet this evening at the White House."]
Greg Ridgeway and Nelson Lim
President Obama called the arrest of his friend Professor Henry Gates a “teachable moment.” This is a moment to learn the facts of race and policing these days. The president put it this way: “There is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.”
Racial profiling has indeed been an ugly reality for many years. But our research in several large cities finds little evidence that it continues to be a major problem.
Police departments have made tremendous progress in both policy and practice of racial profiling. Numerous states and departments have banned it, and racial profiling prevention training is commonplace. Sgt. James Crowley, the officer who arrested Gates, has taught such a class at the local police academy for five years.
It’s true that minorities continue to be stopped disproportionately to their representation in the population. But this information says nothing about whether police are racial profiling. A key reason for this disparity is exposure to police.
Police regularly allocate their officers based on a neighborhood’s 911 call volume. Disproportionate numbers of African Americans and Latinos live in highly segregated areas with high crime rates. As a result, they have much greater exposure to police officers than whites who live in other parts of the city. Furthermore, even though drug use is nearly equal across races, research indicates that black drug users and sellers are likelier to be involved in frequent, public drug transactions that increase the risk of police noticing them.
To address the stop disparity question more directly, RAND researchers have conducted a series of studies in Oakland, California and Cincinnati – two cities with histories of racial tension. We found that regardless of whether officers could identify the race of the drivers in advance, the percentage of black drivers stopped remained the same. That is, even in circumstances when race couldn’t be a factor in officers’ stop decisions, black drivers were still stopped at the same rate.
Such findings counter the longstanding belief that merely “driving while black” is an invitation to police harassment. And so many commentators on the Gates arrest have assumed that race played a role in the incident. Norm Stamper, retired police chief of the Seattle Police Department, said, “My personal belief is that had Professor Gates been white, the outcome would have been different … maybe even a couple of chuckles ... it ended up becoming a huge national issue.”
It’s impossible to say whether a white Gates would have been arrested. But by examining a large number of police stops, we can draw some conclusions.
We looked at 500,000 stops that New York Police Department officers made in 2006 and found that 4 percent of black pedestrians who were stopped were arrested. For each black pedestrian, we found white pedestrians stopped at about the same location, at about the same time of day, and suspected of the same crime. They were arrested at the same rate: 4 percent.
The pattern holds true for other outcomes: 45 percent of black pedestrians were frisked. Similar white pedestrians were frisked 42 percent of the time. Officers used physical force against 21 percent of black pedestrians and 20 percent of white pedestrians.
We completed similar analyses in Cincinnati from 2003 to 2007. Same answer. When we compare black drivers to white drivers and make sure that they are similar on when, where, and why the stops took place, we find no differences in the stop outcomes.
While we have largely moved on from the profiling of the 1990s, the kind that resulted in lengthy court oversight in New Jersey and Maryland, our research showed that racial profiling by a few problem officers in certain neighborhoods may still persist.
In New York and Cincinnati, we found a few officers with inexplicable patterns of stopping a large number of black residents. And black pedestrians stopped on Staten Island in 2006 were more likely to be searched, arrested, or have physical force used against them. But these findings are the exception rather than the rule.
The Gates arrest rekindles painful memories of police brutality, of the tragic cases of Sean Bell, Timmy Thomas, and Rodney King. But these do not negate the progress that has been made to eradicate racial profiling – even if the improvement has not been recognized by the public, especially black and Latinos, a sizable majority of whom, in a 2004 Gallup poll, believed racial profiling is widespread.
When President Obama meets with Professor Gates and Officer Crowley this evening, he could use this “teachable moment” to communicate the progress that has been made toward ending racial bias in American policing. We need the perception to catch up with the reality that racial profiling is becoming – and must be made - a thing of the past.
Editor's Note: Greg Ridgeway is director of the Center on Quality Policing and Nelson Lim is a Senior Demographer at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.
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