Media culpability in the tarnishing of the badge
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Manhattan Institute scholar Heather Mac Donald famously introduced the term Ferguson Effect to describe how Black Lives Matters activists have weakened policing in the high crime neighborhoods that need it most. American Experiment’s Katherine Kersten interviews her about race, crime, and law enforcement.
Your new book, The War On Cops, describes how the new attacks on law and order make everyone less safe. What is the fundamental truth of your book?
The fundamental truth is that policing today is data-driven. The police go where crime is happening most intensely and where people are being victimized most. Given the vast disparities in criminal victimization, the police cannot help but be disproportionately in minority neighborhoods on behalf of minority victims and, sadly, being called to try to find and arrest minority suspects.
You identified the Ferguson Effect on crime in American cities. What is it?
The Ferguson Effect describes the twin phenomena of officers backing off of proactive policing under the false Black Lives Matter narrative and the resulting increase in crime. The increase in homicides last year was the largest one-year increase in nearly a half century, and black males were the primary victims. More than 900 black males were killed last year over the previous year. More than 7,000 blacks died, overall, of homicide. The increase is worse in cities with large black populations because that is where the Black Lives Matter narrative is having its most negative effect on police officers’ willingness to engage in self initiated, proactive police activity.
The primary example of the Ferguson Effect this year is Chicago: Pedestrian stops are down 82 percent, and shootings and homicides are up about 50 percent. So far this year, 3,300 people have been shot in Chicago. That works out to about one person shot every two hours. If you believe Black Lives Matter activists, you would think that a large portion of those shootings have been committed by cops, because the vast majority of victims have been black. In fact, the cops have shot about 18 people this year. That’s 0.6 percent of all shooting victims. The narrative that President Obama and Hillary Clinton incessantly repeat—that black parents are right to fear that every time their child goes out into public—he might be shot by a cop is just statistically innumerate. It’s a dangerous lie.
Why has the Black Lives Matter movement been so successful explaining away the new nationwide crime rate with a narrative about the racist war on black civilians?
I’ve never seen anything like it. Black lives are being taken, and yet President Obama and the entire community of academics and activists continue to say, “Nothing to see here, folks. Move on. This is not an issue.” President Obama has described this crime increase as just a blip in a few cities. In other words, he is saying that black lives don’t matter, because it’s not white people who are being killed in the Ferguson Effect-inspired homicide spike. It’s black people.
Activists refuse to acknowledge the crime increase because to do so would mean acknowledging that proactive policing saves lives. That is a truth that the anti-cop left, both on the streets and in academia, refuses to acknowledge.
In the book you say that crime, not race, is driving police actions and prison rates. What numbers should Americans should know?
Nationally, blacks commit homicide at eight times the combined rate of whites and Hispanics combined. If you take Hispanics out of that equation, the black/ white homicide differential is about 11 to one. The disparities are even greater in cities. In New York City, for example, blacks are 23 percent of the population but commit 75 percent of all shootings and 70 percent of all robberies. That’s according to the victims and witnesses. This is what primarily minority victims are telling the cops. By contrast, whites in New York City are 34 percent of the population. They commit less than two percent of all shootings and four percent of all robberies.
Chicago is the same. Blacks and whites each make up just under a third of the city’s population. Blacks commit 80 percent of all homicides and 80 percent of all shootings. Whites commit about one percent of shootings and homicides. This means that virtually every time an officer receives a shots-fired call in America’s big cities—meaning somebody has been shot or has witnessed a shooting—he’s being called to minority neighborhoods on behalf of minority victims and being given the description of a minority suspect. Cops don’t wish that. It’s a reality forced on them, but it is going to determine where their deployment patterns are and where they are most frequently encountering violent, armed, and resistant suspects. And that reality is what explains police shootings.
You said that no government agency is more dedicated to the proposition that black lives matter than American police departments. Explain your reasoning.
In the early ‘90s, criminologists were saying things like, “Violent crime is just the nation’s fate. That’s the price of freedom, and there’s nothing we can do, especially in the inner city—besides, of course, tripling the already massive social services budget.” Yet in 1994, New York City began a policing revolution that embraced the then-radical premise that the police can actually lower crime, not just respond to it. Police commanders, led by Commissioner William Bratton, fanatically pored over emerging crime data to spot crime patterns before they ripened into a serious crime spree. They asked cops to use their knowledge of crime conditions to intervene when they observed suspicious behavior on the street.
Minorities have been the primary beneficiaries of this data-driven, proactive policing revolution. Blacks represent about 70 to 75 percent of all the lives saved in New York City since the early ‘90s. More than 10,000 minority males are alive today in New York City because homicide levels fell from more than 2,000 per year to about 300. The high-crime areas that were once under the thrall of open-air drug markets were liberated and were able to re-establish a modicum of civilized urban life that people in lower-crime areas take for granted as their birthright.
In my experience, the residents of high-crime neighborhoods are far from resenting the police. They are calling for more police and faster response times. What are you hearing in this respect?
This is the tragic irony that police departments face. They cannot respond to the heartfelt requests of law-abiding members of their high-crime communities without generating the police statistics that the ACLU or the Obama Justice Department will use against them in a racial profiling lawsuit. I have never been to a police community meeting in an inner-city area where I haven’t heard some version of the following request: “You arrest the drug dealers. They’re back on the corner the next day. Why can’t you keep them off the street?” Or “I smell weed in my hallway. Why can’t you do something about it?”
Law-abiding residents of high-crime areas routinely beg the cops to clear the corners of large groups of teens who are hanging out and fighting. They know that those unruly gatherings often result in drive-by shootings. And yet the Obama Justice Department in August issued a report that blasted the Baltimore Police Department for its practice of clearing the corners. If police respond to their residents who are desperate for more order on the streets, they know that when they do, someone will allege racial profiling. Or they can ignore the residents, walk away, and let crime go up, which is what we’re starting to see.
What are you hearing from street cops across the country about their daily experience since the rise of the Black Lives Movement?
I’m hearing that law and order is breaking down in inner cities across the country. A Chicago cop told me he’s never experienced so much hatred in his 19 years on the job. He said the job has basically become undoable. The media refuse to cover this, but when officers get out of their cars in inner-city areas, they are frequently surrounded by hostile jeering crowds, holding cell phones in the officers’ faces and refusing law enforcement commands to get back on the curb. I was at a U.S. Marshals’ meeting of the Fugitive Task Force in New York and New Jersey. These are the cops who are assigned to the most violent fugitive felons. A black cop told me about trying to arrest a violent felon in the north Bronx and being immediately surrounded by a crowd of 20 people who were cursing at him. One guy picked up a pike and threatened to kill him. He got out of that situation only by calling for backup, and two cars came.
That type of hatred is inevitably going to affect officers’ behavior. Cops are human. That visceral hatred is amplified and echoed by Black Lives Matter rhetoric where every protest features chants like “F*** the police.” “Racist cops.” “Killer cops.” Couple that with the message from President Obama that pedestrian stops are racist, and you will see officers back off from what is completely discretionary activity. They don’t have to get out of their car to make that stop if no one has called 911. More and more cops are deciding to just drive on by the drug corner at 1 a.m.
There’s a big push here to diversify Minnesota’s police forces. Does diversification, specifically hiring more black cops, seem to have an effect on police involved shootings or on crime generally?
It does—and it’s the opposite of what the Black Lives Matter movement has told us. The Justice Department has found that black officers in San Francisco were much more likely to shoot and use force against black suspects if they did not have a white officer with them. The Obama Justice Department in March 2015 came out with a report on the Philadelphia Police Department that found that black and Hispanic officers were much more likely than white officers to shoot an unarmed black suspect.
So, we’re not seeing crime go down generally in cities where a significant increase in the number of black officers has occurred?
To the contrary. New Orleans, Newark, Detroit, all have majority-black police forces and they have very, very high crime rates. It’s also the case that having black officers involved in incidents does nothing to appease Black Lives Matter protesters. They turn on a dime.
They’re very adept at leveraging the facts to suit them. If it’s a white officer shooting a black man, obviously race is an issue, but as soon as it’s a black officer shooting a black man, then they say, “This is not a racial matter.” In Baltimore, three of the six cops that were preposterously criminally indicted for the transport of Freddie Gray were black. That didn’t stop people from burning down Baltimore.
Here in Minneapolis, we have a real problem with shootings. Most are gang-related. A few months ago, two toddlers were shot; one was killed. What is the most effective way to get guns off the street?
I think it’s asking the police to use their powers of observation. If they see somebody on a shooting hot-spot hitching up his waistband as if he has a gun, it’s a good thing to get out of the car and ask a few questions. And if that person cannot assuage concerns, the cop should possibly frisk him, if he feels he has justified cause. The knowledge that gangbangers could be frisked led people in New York City to stop carrying guns. Criminals themselves will tell you that stop, question, and frisk is a deterrent, but it’s not just for shootings and gun crime. It is also an inevitable and necessary police power for intercepting any sort of crime, whether it’s car theft or robbery.
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges acknowledges that most shootings here are perpetrated by a small group of hardened gang members. She has suggested that the best way to get guns off the street is to bring in all the gang members and give them all the resources they need to get their lives together.
That’s not a new solution. We’ve been doing that since the 1960s. New York City was the welfare capital of the world. It had no effect on crime. What brought crime down was proactive policing.
Black Lives Matter and other police critics seem to have no expectation of personal responsibility on the part of young black men. In almost all the recent high-profile police-involved shootings around the nation, the young men who were shot appeared not to have followed police instructions. Why these low expectations?
It’s a lot easier to blame outside forces. And it’s really easy when you have an entire elite establishment, now led by the universities, that is pumping out black victimology and telling blacks again and again that they live in a profoundly and systemically and lethally racist environment. It’s also painful to acknowledge that there is a high degree of dysfunction in inner-city communities. There are so many law-abiding people who are raising good kids. It’s a sad testament to the state of the civil rights movement that these Black Lives Matter martyrs have, by and large, been criminals, petty or serious, and were often resisting arrest, running from the cops. It’s a far cry from Rosa Parks.
Minnesota’s Governor Mark Dayton recently established a statewide Council on Law Enforcement and Community Relations, modeled on a similar task force convened by President Obama. What’s the track record of these kinds of commissions?
I know of no track record whatsoever. They tend to come up with recommendations that are either anodyne or dangerous. Civilians are, by and large, clueless about what it takes to subdue a resisting suspect or the degree of anarchy in inner-city communities. If the same number of white children had been killed in drive-by shootings as the number of black children over the last two years, there would have been calls for military deployment. Whites all went crazy over the Newtown shooting because white kids were killed. There’s a Newtown every couple months in the black community, and whites are just clueless. Last month, a 15-year-old boy was burned alive in a Chicago dumpster. These civilian commissions could change something if they were to speak the truth about black crime, because policing today is an epiphenomenon of crime—and the public, in my experience, simply does not have any knowledge of how disparate those crime statistics are.
This new Council on Law Enforcement and Community Relations has called for implicit bias training for police. You have criticized this kind of training. Why?
It’s based on an utterly faulty premise, which is that the police are shooting blacks disproportionately out of implicit bias. The evidence shows the opposite. This year alone, four studies have shown that if there’s a bias in police shootings, it works in blacks’ favor. This is hard to get your mind around, because it is so contrary to everything we’ve been hearing for the last couple years, but four studies by often very-left wing outfits like the Center on Policing Equity show that whites are disadvantaged when it comes to police shootings. So the implicit bias movement is based on a fiction.
This implicit bias push has been propounded by the Obama Justice Department. They’re sending all federal law enforcement officers to implicit bias training. It’s a tragic waste of resources. Police are desperate for more tactical training. There have been some very bad shootings over the last two years that were the result of overwhelmingly lousy tactics. I know cops in Chicago who pay out of their own pockets for more training in those agonizing shoot/don’t shoot decisions. Implicit bias training is anodyne. It’s going to do nothing to reduce police shootings–which I don’t think are particularly high to begin with.
You have said there’s a straight line between inner-city family breakdown and youth violence.
The statistics are clear. Children who grow up in single-parent families have on average a much higher chance of becoming juvenile delinquents and ending up in prison. There are single mothers who do heroic jobs of raising law-abiding young males, but that’s not the average. You can talk to young black males themselves who will say, “I needed my father.” I quote several in my book. Mothers and fathers bring different skills to raising children, and inner-cities boys, in particular, are desperate for those role models. It’s not just a lack of their own father, but when they exist in a culture that doesn’t expect men to marry the mothers of the children they’ve created, they have none of the imperatives of civilizing themselves and becoming bourgeois: deferring gratification, and making themselves an acceptable and attractive mate. In other communities, the script says, “You stay in school. You work relatively hard because you’re going to have to present yourself as a potential husband at some point.”
Black Lives Matter and other critics condemn what they call mass incarceration of black men. They claim that the entire American criminal justice system is racist. Are our prisons full of non-violent drug offenders? What are the facts?
Criminologists have been trying for decades to prove the proposition that the overrepresentation of blacks in prison is due to criminal justice system racism, and the honest ones—even the very left-wing ones like Michael Tonry and Robert Sampson—have been forced to conclude that it is the vastly differential rates of criminal offending that is responsible for black incarceration rates. Any seeming sentencing disparities in so-called same crime statistics disappear when you take criminal history into account. The inner-city gang environment is really sui generis. There aren’t really many comparisons you can make to it, and prisons are not filled with nonviolent drug offenders.
State prisons contain 88 percent of the nation’s prison population. The vast majority of people are there for violent crime. Just four percent of state prisoners are there for drug possession and a huge number of those drug possession convictions have been pled down from a trafficking charges. You could remove all drug offenders from the nation’s prisons, and the black incarceration rate would go down from about 37.6 percent to 37.4 percent. So, drugs are not the reason that blacks are disproportionately represented in prison.
Final question: You’ve said that the greatest danger of the war on cops is an eroding of respect for the rule of law and the breakdown of civilized urban life. Will you elaborate on this?
Riots are returning to the urban landscape. They’re becoming so normalized that they get less and less coverage. They’re not even covered at all these days. The Milwaukee race riots in September quickly fell off the national radar. We are playing with fire. If you continuously tell people that they are the victims of a racist criminal justice system, and you add to that the academic environment of deliberately promoting racial victimology, you are going to see more violence. Gun homicides of cops are up 44 percent this year. Just in the last two weeks, there have been several California police officers who’ve been shot fatally, some in ambushes. I think we are at risk of an amplified, very violent war on cops—and possibly also a broader race war.
Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She is a recipient of the 2005 Bradley Prize. Mac Donald’s newest book, The War on Cops (2016), warns that raced-based attacks on the criminal-justice system, from the White House on down, are eroding the authority of law and putting lives at risk.
Other previous works include The Burden of Bad Ideas (2001), a collection of Mac Donald’s City Journal essays, details the effects of the 1960s counterculture’s destructive march through America’s institutions. In The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan than Today’s (2007), coauthored with Victor Davis Hanson and Steven Malanga, she chronicles the effects of broken immigration laws and proposes a practical solution to securing the country’s porous borders. In Are Cops Racist? (2010), another City Journal anthology, Mac Donald investigates the workings of the police, the controversy over so-called racial profiling, and the anti-profiling lobby’s harmful effects on black Americans. Her writing has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, and The New Criterion.
A frequent guest on Fox News, CNN, and other TV and radio programs, Mac Donald holds a B.A. in English from Yale University, graduating with a Mellon Fellowship to Cambridge University. She holds a J.D. from Stanford University Law School
Katherine Kersten, a writer and attorney, is a senior policy fellow at Center of the American Experiment. She served as a Metro columnist for the Star Tribune from 2005 to 2008, and as an opinion columnist for the paper for 15 years between 1996 and 2013. She was a founding director of the Center, and served as its chair from 1996 to 1998. She holds a B.A. from the University of Notre Dame, an M.A. from Yale University, and a J.D. from the University of Minnesota Law School.