The Columbus Dispatch continued its long tradition as the Official Public Relations Firm for the Highway Patrol.  Sunday, the Dispatch printed a puff piece about the efforts of the Highway Patrol to look for drug traffickers traveling Ohio’s Highways.  Generally, this is good news.  Drugs are being taken off the streets, and the Patrol’s approach seems better thought out than Kasich’s “Severe Warning Signs” plan.

So, what could go wrong?  Two things.

First, the article in the Dispatch never states how drivers are targeted selected for investigatory stops.

Here is what is going on.  As everyone who has passed a Trooper while traveling a few miles above the speed limit knows, the Highway Patrol does not stop everyone who commits a traffic violation.  Instead, the Trooper has to choose who to stop and who to let go.  In addition, any law enforcement officer will explain that everyone eventually commits a minor traffic violation (drifting over a lane line, going a little too fast) if you follow or watch them for long enough.

The Patrol has decided to look for suspected drug traffickers first, and then focus on whether those suspects persons have committed some type of a traffic violation.  The proof is in the Dispatch article.  Look at the some of the ticky-tack violations noted:  loud muffler; obscured rear license plate.

So how is the Patrol deciding who to stop?  The article doesn’t really say.  The challenge facing many law enforcement agencies is how to conduct this type of selective criminal enforcement without engaging in racial profiling.  In 2003, for example, President Bush sent a directive to federal law enforcement agencies to take steps to avoid this problem.

The Dispatch article does not explain what, if any efforts the Highway Patrol have undertaken to avoid the use of techniques that have a disproportionate impact on minority citizens.  This is not a small concern.  We are not suggesting in any way that Highway Patrol Troopers are racist or that the Highway Patrol is explicitly targeting citizens because of race.  But this is tough work, and an organization like the Highway Patrol that traditionally has not done criminal work needs to work extra hard to avoid even the appearance of racial profiling.

It is not enough for the Highway Patrol to say “trust us.”  The Highway Patrol has a tough history to overcome.  Way back in 2005, the Highway Patrol was promoting similar success in seizing drugs in Northern Ohio.  The Toledo Blade took a close look at the Highway Patrol’s Techniques.  Here is how they describe what they found:

The Ohio Highway Patrol made lots of headlines and TV news video last year for its arrests of suspected drug couriers as they crossed the Ohio Turnpike in northwest Ohio, particularly in Lucas County.

Millions of dollars’ worth of cocaine, heroin, and a potent form of marijuana from British Columbia, Canada, were seized.

But a review by The Blade of those cases as well as those for the previous two years found that a disproportionate number of the motorists stopped and arrested in high-profile drug cases were minorities – mostly Hispanics but also some blacks and Asians.

In 2004, for example, just one suspect was white while 26 were Hispanic and six were black. By comparison, a total of 15 whites were arrested over the entire three-year period.

Since then, things changed so we can now blindly trust these guys, right?  Right?

Right:  remember in 2008 when illegal immigration was a big issue in the Republican presidential primary?  The ACLU complained that the Ohio Highway Patrol was targeting Latinos in an effort to appear to be leading the efforts to curb illegal immigration.

Right II:  this is the same Ohio Highway Patrol leadership that did not believe that troopers who posed in KKK costumes while on duty should be fired.

So, we would have liked to see some effort by the Highway Patrol to explain its techniques (without giving up confidential law enforcement strategies) or at least acknowledge their responsibility to avoid charges of racial profiling.

We also wish we had confidence that the civilian leadership provided by Kasich and his cabinet will make sure that there are no excesses.   Twenty years ago, the Toledo Blade warned that “the Patrol should not patrol itself.”   Today, things are worse.  The Director of Public Safety, who is charged with providing civilian oversight of the Highway Patrol, is a thirty-one year veteran of the Highway Patrol.  Kasich even refers to him as “Colonel Charles.”  As Inspector General, Charles abused his office to defend the Highway Patrol from allegations of wrongdoing and to clear senior officers of any responsibility for misconduct by Troopers.

And don’t forget that his wife is a captain and his son a lieutenant with the Highway Patrol.

And, as Modern noted in this prescient post:  Charles was unethically interested in the internal workings of the Patrol while serving as Inspector General.

Second, the big picture here is that the Highway Patrol is again seeking to expand its jurisdiction beyond its core responsibility of enforcing traffic laws. (Remember the recent casinos effort?)

The Highway Patrol is not a state police organization.  The Ohio Legislature has significantly limited the jurisdiction of the Highway Patrol for a reason.  If the people of Ohio wanted a state police organization to conduct criminal investigations, they would vote to create one.  Instead, the people of Ohio have opted to have criminal investigations conducted by local law enforcement.

Letting the Highway Patrol expand its jurisdiction in this stealthy manner is dangerous.  Local law enforcement and sheriffs are accountable to the voters.  The Highway Patrol has long held the view that it is accountable to nobody.

So, let’s congratulate the Highway Patrol on its good work.  But then politely ask them quit trying to grab headlines and leave criminal investigations to local law enforcement.