News your connection to The Boston Globe

NU profiling study really proves nothing

By Heather MacDonald, 5/19/2004

    On city boulevards and rural lanes, whites and women are far more likely to receive written warnings instead of tickets when stopped for identical traffic offenses, according to a Boston Globe study of newly released state records.


Police plan public meeting

Chiefs deny racial profiling

Civil rights advocates laud plan

Police chiefs decry study

Racial profiling is confirmed
Northeastern study [PDF]
Report summary
Who got a passing grade?
Police response [MS Word]

Police flouting 'no fix' law on tickets

Profiling study cites dozens of locales Charts
Northeastern study [PDF]

Reilly starts push to end profiling in police stops

Boston police to get tough on tickets

Judge: Suspect must stay in jail

Seeing bias, evidence tossed

Deeper look at profiling

Funding urged for study

Ticketing cited despite curbs

Romney backs profile tracking
People asked to join task force

Chief: Glitch caused error

Task force to review data


Day 1:
Race, sex, and age drive ticketing
Minority officers are stricter on minorities
Boston to track all stops by police

Who gets fined for speeding
Minority officers
Most-favored status
One officer's week

Ticketing whites vs. minorities
Large departments | All

Ticketing women vs. men
Large departments | All

Day 2:
Punishment varies by town and officer

How tickets raise insurance
Ranking the departments
Littering is worse?

Toughest on speeders
Large departments | All
Locals vs. out-of-towners
Large departments | All

Day 3:
Troopers fair, tough in traffic encounters

Frequent ticketers
How fast can you go?

Editorial: Tickets to fix
Op-Ed: Looking deeper
Op-Ed: Study proves nothing
Profiles in prejudice


Q & A
Secretary of Public Safety Edward A. Flynn, the senior law enforcement official in Massachusetts, spoke with the Globe about this series. Q & A

Detailed report
A closer look at how the Globe analyzed hundreds of thousands of traffic tickets.
Download study
This .PDF document requires Adobe Acrobat

Online chat
Globe reporter Bill Dedman chatted with readers about this series.
Read full transcript


In January, the Globe published the first results of its analysis.

Part 1:
Citations reveal disparity
Totals key to computations

Tracking tickets
Searches by race and age

Searching minorities more often
Ticketing their own

Part 2:
Police not pressed on race
Tewksbury cop is tops
Fridays worst for tickets
Scope of monitoring reduced

Where race was not recorded

Failing to record the race
Searching more cars

TO THE TORTURED subject of racial profiling, a recent study by Northeastern University is said to add new evidence. But does it?

University researchers found small racial disparities in traffic citations issued by 249 Bay State police departments. The findings have been greeted as proof of police bias. This conclusion is at best premature, since the Northeastern study lacks every prerequisite of sound profiling analysis.

To the claim that the police stop "too many" members of any given demographic group, the question must always be: "too many" compared to what? The Northeastern study compares police stop rates to population demographics. If 7 percent of a town's residents are black, for example, but 8 percent of traffic citations issued by the town's police are for black drivers, the authors conclude that the police single out drivers on the basis of skin color.

But population is a flawed benchmark for analyzing police actions -- as if police officers are guided by the census rather than by behavior. Crime rates differ across racial and ethnic groups; evidence suggests that driving behavior might, too. A 2001 study of the New Jersey Turnpike, for example, found that black drivers were twice as likely to speed as white drivers, a disparity that increased at speeds above 90 miles per hour. There are many possible explanations for this difference: Black drivers may be more likely to travel long distances on the turnpike, bringing them more frequently into faster left-hand lanes, or the black population on the pike may contain more young males than the white population, raising the number of speeders as well. The Northeastern study makes no effort to determine driving habits among its target groups; it thus has no basis for judging whether police stop rates are disproportionate.

Driving patterns are just the start of valid profiling analysis. Different levels of equipment violations, such as broken taillights and missing vehicle registration tags, must be accounted for as well. Poor people have to defer required repairs more often than the affluent, and poverty is concentrated in minority populations. No word from the Massachusetts study on this factor, however.

Next question: Who's on the road when? Highway populations can vary wildly according to time of day and day of the week. If more police are on patrol when the proportion of minority drivers is highest -- on weekend nights, for example -- stop rates of those drivers will perforce be higher than the average road population would predict. Northeastern's method for determining road demographics is laughable -- in most cases extrapolated from such alleged predictors as local restaurant and hotel receipts -- and is no substitute for hour by hour observation of traffic and police deployment.

Most egregiously, the profiling researchers ignore the relationship between community crime rates and police presence. Calls from crime victims bring officers disproportionately into minority neighborhoods, because that is where violence is highest. Responsive commanders will target policing strategies in those same neighborhoods, to protect the most vulnerable residents. A greater police presence in an area usually produces more citations.

A reliable model of police discretion requires many more variables; the Northeastern team does not even hint at them. To now order Massachusetts officers to collect racial data, without developing a valid benchmark for that data, is senseless -- even more so given how minute the disparities measured by the recent study are. Cops will waste countless hours filling out forms that no one knows how to analyze, and they may think twice before stopping minority violators, lest they be accused of racism.

As usual, the ultimate victims of this groundless crusade will be law-abiding members of inner-city neighborhoods, who depend on an energized police force to keep them safe. There may be isolated officers who violate their oath of impartiality, to the disgrace of their profession, but no one has ever produced evidence that the vast majority of cops use skin color, rather than behavior, to determine whom they stop, cite, or arrest. With their every move being analyzed through the prism of race, however, officers may well start to calculate their actions in terms of black and white.

Heather MacDonald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of "Are Cops Racist?"

Globe Archives Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search