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Racial profiling by Massachusetts police could be a huge problem—but until the state completes a comprehensive study of the race of Bay Staters pulled over in traffic stops, nobody can really be sure. Cue Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly. Thanks to his recent decision to force 128 towns to collect race data for traffic stops, Massachusetts might finally find out just how disproportionately minority citizens are pulled over.
Reilly’s decision was the final say in a lengthy appeal process for towns that were seeking to be exempted from a statewide, 249-town effort initiated by Public Safety Secretary Ed Flynn. The inspiration for Flynn’s initiative was a contraversial Northeastern University report, commissioned by the state legislature, which came out last May. The report analyzed traffic citations, warnings and search data for the state’s 366 law enforcement agencies. Under the statute that commissioned the study, Flynn was required to determine whether Northeastern’s data suggested a pattern of racial profiling in various local police forces. He thus ordered 249 Massachusetts law enforcement agencies to collect additional data for a one-year period, while he excused 117 others.
It is important to remember that nothing has been proven conclusively so far. Reilly has kept mum on whether or not he thinks there actually is widespread racial profiling in Massachusetts police departments; he has insisted neither his decision nor the secretary’s earlier findings draw any conclusions about whether these agencies engage in racial profiling. Reilly has wisely strayed from demonizing the hard work of police departments, and he has said that he thinks the one-year data collection is more of a snapshot of the current situation and an opportunity to prevent a problem from spreading or becoming more prominent. He has not portrayed the data collection effort as the start of a crusade against institutionalized racism ingrained into Massachusetts police departments and has so far said he will resist any efforts to prolong such collection.
Indeed, it would be improper and constraining if the period of the data collection lasted longer than one year. Experience in England, where police are forced to report the race of all subjects and there is heavy pressure to avoid undue suspicion of minority groups, has shown that it is demonstrably unwise to force police to be constantly and overtly conscious of the race of their subjects. Police in Massachusetts should continue to be free to pursue subjects as long as the evidence warrants suspicion; officers should never be forced to second guess apprehending someone merely because of his or her race.
The bottom line in this case is that the serious problem of racial profiling can never be solved unless its extent is known. As the head of the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union noted, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” Forcing reluctant towns to take stock of the actions of their police department for a set amount of time is a reasonable first step.
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