Virginia’s Criminal Justice System – The Case for Reform, Part III

The death of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman have focused the public’s attention on the issue of race in America – both on the streets and within our criminal justice system.  While we must all respect constitutionally guaranteed due process rights, we must also not confuse the need to respect due process with the need to accept a criminal justice system that:

-    Disproportionately impacts people of color;
-    Lacks transparency;
-    Wastes tax dollars;
-    Enables abuses of power;
-    Relies on ineffective solutions; and
-    Undermines the right to vote.

Throughout the fall, we will highlight these concerns in our blog series, Virginia’s Criminal Justice System – The Case for Reform.

When the Government Should Collect Data (including sometimes on us)

By Frank Knaack, Director of Public Policy and Communications

When it comes to data collection and our government, there is good data collection and there is bad data collection. We don’t need to look beyond the most recent NSA spying scandal to understand the type of data that our government shouldn’t collect. But, there is also a huge amount of data that our government should collect, such as data showing the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of government agencies, programs, and policies. These types of data enable the government to act in an efficient, effective, and transparent manner. In Virginia, we are missing one of these key data sets – data on the stops and arrests carried out by Virginia law enforcement departments.

Corporations – held accountable by their shareholders – collect and analyze data to ensure that their practices are efficient. The government’s responsibility to the people of Virginia should be no different. Inefficiencies result when law enforcement departments across Virginia don’t collect data on stops and arrests. But it’s worse than that: not collecting data enables departments to remain blissfully ignorant about the possible use of racial profiling. The result can harm public safety and raise serious constitutional concerns.

We know that racial profiling is detrimental to public safety because law enforcement officers who engage in racial profiling divert their attention from objective markers of actual or potential crime. When law enforcement departments fail to collect and analyze data concerning the stops and arrests made by their officers, they lack an objective record to determine whether racial profiling is going on in their jurisdiction. In addition to diverting the law enforcement officer’s attention, racial profiling or perceptions of racial profiling undermines trust between law enforcement and communities of color and hinders community policing efforts. When individuals and communities fear the police, they are less likely to contact law enforcement when they are a witness to or victim of a crime. By creating this climate of fear, racial profiling compromises public safety.

In addition to the public safety issues, racial profiling also raises constitutional concerns. As we all know, communities of color and members of certain religious groups are disproportionately impacted by racial profiling. By targeting individuals and communities based on skin color or religious affiliation – rather than objective actions – law enforcement officers undermine the fundamental principles of our Constitution. The ACLU and NYCLU (our NY affiliate), along with the CLEAR project, recently sued the New York Police Department for its surveillance on innocent Muslim New Yorkers. Such surveillance, based, in this case, on nothing more than the beliefs and practices of the members of a specific religious faith, violates the constitutional right to equal protection as well as the constitutional right to freely exercise one’s religious beliefs. Fortunately, there is a simple solution for law enforcement leadership to better ensure that their officers are not engaging in unconstitutional actions – they can collect and analyze stop and arrest data.

There is no downside to collecting this data. If racial profiling does not exist, then law enforcement leadership will still have an objective measurement tool for evaluating the work of their officers and will have data to dispel concerns and rebuild trust between law enforcement and impacted communities. If racial profiling does exist, then law enforcement leadership will have the data necessary to determine where the problems exist and will be better positioned to remedy the problem. Either way, collecting data on stops and arrests carried out by Virginia law enforcement departments is a win-win – for law enforcement, for our communities, and for ensuring our constitutional principles.

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