The essential courage and journalistic precision of Heather Mac Donald

Heather Mac Donald is one of the nation’s truly brave and acute writers regarding criminal behavior and policing.  Over a recent fifteen-day span she also, almost surely, was the most prolific, as she had no fewer than ten op-eds, essays, and other pieces published in places such as the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Dallas Morning News, and in her home base City Journal, the invaluable flagship quarterly of the Manhattan Institute, where she is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow.

The list of columnists, scholars and others I try to read whenever they write something new is getting longer, but Heather has been high on it for a long time.  She also has written several times for American Experiment, including an essay in our most recently released symposium, Specifically, What Must We Do to Repair Our Culture of Massive Family Fragmentation, where she made to-the-point points like this:

“A prerequisite to reviving a marriage culture for childrearing, therefore, is to revalorize fathers. Community leaders and thought leaders must suck it up, risk feminist wrath, and state explicitly and often that children need their fathers and that males bring unique gifts to their children.”

She’s been equally direct this month writing about “The Ferguson Effect.”  Why it’s “Time to End the Demonizing of Police.”  Why “The Fire Spreads in Baton Rouge.”  And in response to the question “Does America Incarcerate Too Many Nonviolent Criminals?”  She also has reviewed key findings in “Academic Research on Police Shootings and Race.”  What follows are excerpts from several of these pieces.  Keep in mind you’ll also be able to see and hear Heather Mac Donald at an American Experiment lunch program on December 8, when she draws on her important new book, The War Against Cops.  Details to be announced.

Let’s start with “Academic Research on Police Shootings and Race,” which appeared in the Washington Post, three days ago, on July 19.

“The most sophisticated lab study of police shoot/don’t shoot decisions to date, published this year in Criminology and Public Policy, undercuts the Black Lives Matter narrative about trigger-happy, racist cops.  Washington State University researcher Lois James put 80 officers from the Spokane, Wash., police department in highly realistic video simulators of street scenarios.  Officers were confronted with potentially armed suspects identical in all respects, including body language and weapons, except for their race.  The test subjects were not told the purpose of the research, which was conducted between August 2012 and November 2013, before the issue of race in policing reached the fever pitch of prominence that it possesses today.

“The officers were three time less likely to shoot unarmed black suspects than unarmed white suspects and took significantly longer to decide to shoot armed black suspects than armed white suspects.  James hypothesized that officers were second-guessing themselves when confronting black suspects, due to their awareness of potential negative repercussions of shooting a black suspect.  James’s finding that participants, in her words, ‘displayed significant bias favoring Black suspects’ in their shooting decisions replicated the results of two previous studies she has run on shoot/don’t shoot decisions.

“James work anticipated a much-discussed working paper by Harvard economist Roland Fryer.  Fryer found that police officers in Houston were nearly 24 percent less likely to shoot blacks than whites.  [H]e concluded that there was no evidence of racial discrimination there.  In data comprising officer shootings from Dallas, Austin, Houston, Los Angeles and six Florida counties, he found that officers were 47 percent less likely to discharge their weapon without first being attacked if the suspect was black than if the suspect was white, and that black and white victims of police shooting were equally likely to have been armed.”

According to other research reported by Mac Donald, “An officer’s chance of being killed by a black person is 0.000033 [percent], which is 18.5 times the chance of an unarmed black person getting killed by a cop.  After this year’s 72 percent increase in felonious killings of police officers, these ratios will be even more lopsided.”

Here are portions of “The Ferguson Effect,” which she also wrote for the Washington Post.  It appeared just yesterday, July 21.

“The most controversial aspect of my new book, “The War on Cops,” is my claim that violent crime is up in many American cities because officers are backing off proactive policing.  I have dubbed this double phenomenon of de-policing and the resulting crime increase the ‘Ferguson effect,’ picking up on a phrase first used by [the] St. Louis police chief.

“Violence began increasing in the second half of 2014, after two decades of decline.  The Major Cities Chiefs Association convened an emergency session in August 2015 to discuss the double-digit surge in violent felonies besetting its member police departments.

“The violence continued into fall 2015, prompting Attorney General Loretta Lynch to summon more than 100 police chiefs, mayors and federal prosecutors in another emergency meeting to strategize over the rising homicide rates.

“Arrests, summonses and pedestrian stops were dropping in many cities, where data on such police activity were available.  Arrests in St. Louis City and County, for example, fell by a third after the shooting of Michael Brown.  Misdemeanor drug arrests fell by two-thirds in Baltimore through November 2015.

“Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told Lynch that his officers were going ‘fetal’: ‘They have pulled back from the ability to interdict,’ he said.  ‘They don’t want to be a news story themselves, they don’t want their career ended early, and it’s having an impact.’

“2015 closed with a 17 percent increase in homicides in the 56 largest cities, a nearly unprecedented one-year spike. Twelve cities with large black populations saw murders rise anywhere from 54 percent in the case of the District [of Columbia] to 90 percent in Cleveland.  Baltimore’s per capita murder rate was the highest in its history in 2015. . . . This crime increase, I argue, is due to officers’ reluctance to engage in precisely the proactive policing that has come under relentless attack as racist.”

One more op-ed by Heather Mac Donald, “The Fire Spreads in Baton Rouge,” this time in the Dallas Morning News.  It ran two days ago, July 20.

“The more we learn about the latest assassination of police officers, this time resulting in the deaths of three in Baton Rouge, the more it appears to be the outcome of the political and media frenzy that followed the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile two weeks ago.

“The frenzy further amplified the dangerously false narrative that racist police officers are the greatest threat facing young black men today.  President Barack Obama bears responsibility for the lethal spread of that narrative.  In a speech from Poland just hours before the five officers were assassinated in Dallas on July 7, Obama misled the nation about policing and race, charging officers nationwide with preying on blacks because of the color of their skin.

“Obama rolled out a litany of junk statistics to prove that the criminal justice system is racist.  Blacks were arrested at twice the rate of whites, he complained, and get sentences almost 10 percent longer for the same crime.  Missing was any mention of the massive racial differences in criminal offending and criminal records that fully account for arrest rates and sentence lengths.  (Blacks, for example, commit homicide at eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined.)  Instead, Obama chalked up the disparities to ‘biases, some conscious and unconscious that have to be rooted out . . . across our criminal justice system. . . .

“The media bear equal responsibility for the ongoing carnage.  The press immediately slotted the shootings of Sterling and Castile into the racist-cop paradigm, though the facts about what the officers saw and whether the victims were reaching for their guns were unknown.

“Even before this latest attack on the police, officers across the country have been reeling under the prejudice directed against them.  A police trainer, meeting with officers on July 7, hours before the Dallas carnage, reported to me that the cops were ‘out of their minds that the default [in the Castile and Sterling shootings] is racism, without one iota of fact.’

“In June, I spoke with police officers in Dallas about the city’s big spike in homicides this year.  The officers chalked it up to de-policing.  ‘Officers are now leery of doing their job,’ a cop who runs warrants in a [high-crime neighborhood] told me.  ‘Why make stops in the first place?’”

I appreciate, as well as I can, how many people of color, African Americans particularly, might find data and other findings like these suspect and more than difficult to believe.  This is especially the case if they can cite instances where they, or their parents, or their children, or friends have been singled out and pulled over for what they believe, accurately or not, was the high crime of DWB, Driving While Black.  Or if they have been mistreated in much more serious and consequential ways.  Or if they simply (or not so simply) instinctively believe, via previous generations of often truly racist behavior on the part of cops and others in authority, that what Mac Donald asserts in 2016 is just not true and a prime example of embedded racism itself.

I acknowledge all that, plus the accentuated pain of shooting deaths over the last few years, but they don’t subtract from the exceedingly unpleasant but documented facts that Heather Mac Donald writes about with as much courage and precision as anyone I know.

Mitch Pearlstein is Founder & American Experiment Senior Fellow.