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Unequal justice on LI must end

A police officer stands next to a car.

A police officer stands next to a car. Credit: Getty Images/iStock/ kali9

On Long Island, statistics show black and Hispanic people are treated worse than white people at every step of the criminal justice system. It’s an unjust, unjustifiable situation that must end.

“Unequal Justice,” a Newsday-News 12 investigation published last month, found that on Long Island, a higher percentage of minority drivers are pulled over than white people. Reporters Thomas Maier and Ann Choi analyzed more than 100,000 police stops of vehicles and other data. On car-centric Long Island, such disparities are similar to the ones found in the discredited New York City stop-and-frisk policing program.

Once they’ve been pulled over, the cars of minority drivers are more often searched than those of white people. Since their cars are more often searched, illegal drugs or weapons are more often found.

These drivers are also far more likely than their white counterparts to be charged with crimes strongly linked to officer discretion, like resisting arrest or obstruction. Minorities are far more likely than whites to be charged with felonies when found with drugs. Whites are more likely than minorities to be charged with misdemeanors, or not at all. Once convicted of a felony, minorities on Long Island are far more likely to be incarcerated than white people convicted of the same felonies.

There is something wrong here.

Experts told Newsday that illegal drug use is similar among whites and minorities. That makes drug searches, arrests, convictions and sentences a strong indicator of racial profiling. The rate of marijuana use between whites and others is similar. But on Long Island, the rate of arrests of minorities for possession of marijuana is quadruple the rate for whites.

And the percentage of nonwhites found with marijuana who received some jail time was five times that of whites found with marijuana who received jail time, Newsday found.

The disparity is not necessarily caused by overt or intentional racism. Law enforcement is more intense in and around what police call “hot spots,” areas where high crime is a big concern for residents. These often are areas where more minorities live and drive. This can mean more stops for innocuous issues like broken taillights or minor traffic infractions used as a pretext to investigate further. And police officers, susceptible to their own conscious and subconscious preconceptions, might be more likely to suspect minorities than whites and to search them or their vehicles.

The “hot spot” rationale also fueled the racial disparities in whom police confronted with stop-and-frisk in New York City, leading a federal judge to halt the program. Ending the program did not to lead to more crime, as supporters of the policy swore it would.

Once in the system, minorities are less likely than whites to be represented by experienced private counsel. They are less likely to be offered diversion programs like drug court or have access to private rehabilitation programs that might persuade a judge to drop charges or keep them out of jail. And there is a high risk of starting criminal records for young minorities simply because of the neighborhoods where they live.

Often, the problem isn’t conscious racism. Implicit bias can be subconscious. In testing, the subliminal representation of a black face has led civilians and police officers, black and white, to believe they see weapons more quickly. Subliminal representations of guns and knives caused people to shift their eyes to black, as opposed to white, faces.

In the Newsday stories, recently retired Nassau County Police Department acting Commissioner Thomas Krumpter did not acknowledge this. He said, “We go to great pains to ensure that our members are not engaged in any forms of biased policing.” The numbers refute that. Suffolk Police Commissioner Tim Sini, who becomes district attorney on Jan. 1, acknowledged the issue, saying the data in Suffolk show “some disproportionality when it comes to stopping whites and African-Americans.”

With both county police departments in need of new leaders, a commitment to the tough work of implementing racially blind policing has to be a fundamental requirement for hiring.

Long Island’s police departments have guidelines for pulling people over, questioning and searching them. They must be reviewed to make sure these rules firmly point to likely criminal activity. The reasons for searches and questioning must be well documented. Their internal affairs departments must investigate all claims of bias.

Awareness of the problem is a start to push the system toward fairness. The county district attorneys and the New York State Office of Court Administration must monitor charging, plea bargaining and sentencing to assure fair treatment regardless of skin color.

People of all races are entitled to equal treatment. Being black is not probable cause, and being brown doesn’t warrant more time in jail. That they are often treated as such by police, prosecutors and judges, consciously or unconsciously, has to change.