Posted by Jay Livingston
Can you have racially discriminatory outcomes without racist motives or intent?
Los Angeles police are much more likely to stop blacks and Latinos than they are to stop whites. And when they stop someone, they are more likely to frisk or search minorities than whites. Here’s a graph from the ACLU report that collected the data. The principle author is Ian Ayres. (The full report and data set are here.)
William Bratton, chief of the LAPD says flatly, “This department does not engage in racial profiling, has not. We have significant safeguards built in to protect against that.”
I believe him. But then how do you explain the data?
One commenter at the Freakonomics blog, where Ayres aired his findings, suggests that the crucial variable is not the racism of the police but the demeanor of the suspect. Maybe minorities, especially young males, act in a way that sets off the warning bells. That’s also what the police union president seems to mean when he says that the ACLU study is “an exercise that might work on a spreadsheet at Yale, but doesn’t work on the streets of Los Angeles.”
Ah yes, the streets. Number-crunchers don’t know what’s really going down on the street. Cops know. Cops have that sixth sense, born out of years of street experience. It tells them whether someone is “clean” or “dirty.” Maybe they can’t put it into words, maybe they can’t lay it out so that lawyers in expensive three-piece suits and judges in black robes will recognize it as probable cause. But the cops know. They know who to stop, and they know who to search.
At least, that is the conventional wisdom . . . in the precinct and to a great extent in the media. (Do we ever see a movie where a cop’s strong but intuitive suspicions are wrong?) If cops are stopping and searching more minorities, it must be because minorities are more likely to be carrying illegal drugs and weapons. And the cops can tell.
Or can they? The data also show that the police searched a lot more innocent minorities than innocent whites. Cops searching blacks were about 40% less likely to find weapons than when searching whites.
This discrepancy certainly suggests that cops, wittingly or not, are discriminating against minorities. Ayres himself seems to favor that explanation.
The department should require that all existing and new officers take the Implicit Association Test (IAT) . . It produces a measure of unconscious bias . . . . For example, the black/white IAT produces a measure of whether an individual has unconscious negative associations with photographs of African-Americans relative to photographs of whites.But I have different explanation. Mine is also race-based, but it doesn’t assume that police are racists, unconsciously biased against blacks and Latinos. It’s just that the cops’ street sense, their ability to read people, doesn’t work so well across racial lines. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. We know that eyewitnesses are far more reliable in identifying people of their own race than people of another race. And just as we have trouble reading faces across race lines, we may also have trouble reading behavior.
If I’m right, then same-race searches should have a higher “hit rate.” And they do, regardless of the race of the suspect.
the racial disparities in the likelihood of arrest were substantially lower when at least one of the stopping officers was the same race as the suspect.I picture a scene where a pair of cops, one black, one white, stop a young black suspect. They question him briefly. The white cop wants to throw the kid up against the car and search him, but the black cop restrains him. If I’m writing the dialogue, I don’t have the black cop warn about racism (“Watch it, Harry. We don’t want any Rodney Kings here,”). I have him say calmly but assuredly, “Take it easy, Harry. This kid’s clean.”