Local policing and national security are both increasingly at risk from misguided concerns about racial and ethnic profiling. Ethnicity-based activist groups are stepping up efforts to “sensitize” their members to what they charge is the prevalence of profiling within local and federal law enforcement agencies. Should these efforts continue unchecked, our ability to preserve order, defend the homeland, and effectively counter foreign espionage could be seriously crippled.
Heather McDonald of the Manhattan Institute has recently charged that, contrary to the claims of these groups, the evidence that profiling is widespread is weak. Her research shows that police rely on a variety of non-racial cues when they suspect criminal activity. These include behaviors, such as suspicious movements, or actual violations of the law, like speeding. Writing on the Washington Post op-ed page, she concludes “Not everyone who acts suspiciously is breaking the law, but most people who are breaking the law act suspiciously.”
She says three states have increased the risks of effective policing “astronomically.” New Jersey has made profiling a felony offense. California has outlawed consent searches and Maryland compels state troopers to hand out instructions for filing profiling complaints when they make a traffic stop. Inevitably, such measures will hamper efforts to reduce violent crime or drug dealing. What state trooper will be willing to risk a career-threatening profiling allegation or, worse, a felony charge?
McDonald warns about the corrosive effect of this campaign on our war on terrorism. She cites the detention of an al-Qaeda operative at the Canadian border in December 1999. It was the operative’s behavior that sparked the interest of a customs official. When asked to step out of his car, he ran. Customs officials then found more than one hundred pounds of explosives in his auto intended to blow up Los Angeles International Airport. If the American Civil Liberties Union and Arab-American advocacy groups succeed, the next time such a situation arises a customs officer will likely be confronted with allegations of racial profiling.
Meanwhile, lawyers for Katrina Leung, accused Chinese-American double agent, have signaled their intention to base her defense in part on similar allegations. It is not a coincidence that Leung and her co-defendant FBI Special Agent J.J. Smith have retained the same lawyers who sprang Wen Ho Lee. During pre-trial hearings in the Lee case, these lawyers played the race card repeatedly. They alleged that Lee had been singled out solely on the basis of his ethnicity.
A Justice Department investigation later found no merit to the allegations and Lee admitted under oath that he had never experienced racism or ethnic profiling. But the Reno Justice Department’s prosecution folded like a house of cards at the first whiff of these allegations. That precedent has made prosecuting spies and terrorists just that much more difficult.