Telling the Truth About Crime and Policing

Telling the Truth About Crime and Policing

 PART 3:

This is the third in a series on the major policy ideas — from Left and Right — that should guide the next presidential administration's agenda. (For the opposing view, see Danyelle Solomon, "Time to Fix Our Failing Criminal-Justice System.")


The most important criminal-justice reform that the next administration must undertake has nothing to do with policy and everything to do with rhetoric. Unless our nation’s top leaders stop pumping out the false narrative that we are living through an epidemic of racially biased police shootings, as FBI director James Comey warned this past weekend in San Diego, homicides will continue to spike in racially diverse cities as officers back off of proactive policing. Riots following fatal encounters between officers and blacks will become more frequent, and more attempts will be made on officers’ lives.

Last year, homicides rose nearly 12 percent nationwide in agencies reporting to the FBI, close to the largest one-year increase in half a century. In cities with populations above a quarter-million, homicides rose 14.5 percent; cities with populations between half a million and a million saw a 20 percent increase in homicides. The victims have been overwhelmingly black.

The only thing that explains this increase is a change in policing. None of the usual “root causes” invoked to explain (or justify) crime has changed: Poverty and income inequality did not worsen; unemployment did not rise. The size of the crime-prone youth cohort did not expand, nor did the inner-city open-air drug trade.

What did change was the ideological climate in which officers work. Since the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, the claim that black males are under constant lethal threat from racist, trigger-happy cops has become engrained in our national discourse. President Barack Obama routinely accuses the cops of treating blacks and whites differently. At the memorial service for five Dallas police officers gunned down in July 2016 by an assailant inspired by Black Lives Matter ideology, President Obama took the opportunity to declare that black parents were right to fear that “something terrible may happen when their child walks out the door” — that he will be shot by a cop simply for being “stupid.”

After the next Black Lives Matter-inspired assassination of police officers in July, this time in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Hillary Clinton told the NAACP that we need to “root out implicit [police] bias and stop the killings of African-Americans.” During a Democratic presidential primary debate in January, Clinton was asked if it was “reality” that police officers see black lives as “cheap.” She answered unhesitatingly: “Sadly, it’s reality,” adding, “there needs to be a concerted effort to address the systemic racism in our criminal-justice system. We have a very serious problem that we can no longer ignore.”

This charge of racially biased policing, amplified relentlessly by the media, is dangerously false. Four academic studies came out this year, alone, showing that police officers are, if anything, less likely to shoot blacks than whites; there is no evidence that they are more likely to kill blacks. 

Twelve percent of white and Hispanic homicide victims are killed by the police, compared to the 4 percent of black homicide victims who are killed by police officers. Last year, whites made up 50 percent of all individuals fatally shot by the police; blacks were 26 percent of those victims —

less than would be predicted by the black violent crime rate. 

Police shootings will occur where officers most frequently encounter armed and resisting suspects, and that is in minority neighborhoods. Blacks make up 62 percent of all robbery defendants and 57 percent of all murder defendants in the nation’s 75 largest counties, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, though they are only about 15 percent of the population in those places. Blacks commit homicide at eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined.

Black males made up 40 percent of all cop killers over the last decade, though they are 6 percent of the population. As a result, a police officer is 18.5 times more likely to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male is to be killed by a police officer.

However false, the narrative about racially biased policing has poisoned the atmosphere in which police work. Officers working in high-crime minority areas now frequently find themselves surrounded by hostile jeering crowds when they get out of their cars to conduct an investigation or make an arrest. Resistance to arrest is up; suspects are refusing to follow lawful orders. The number of officers shot at by suspects in Chicago rose 100 percent through the first nine and a half months of 2016, compared to the same period in 2015 and 2104. Nationwide, gun homicides of officers rose 50 percent through October 11, 2016, compared to the same period in 2015.

In reaction to both the officially sanctioned narrative about lethal police racism and the animosity directed at them on inner-city streets, many cops have cut back on discretionary, proactive policing. Pedestrian stops dropped 82 percent in Chicago through September 2016, for example. Officers are simply driving by large crowds of youth hanging out on corners and fighting, having been told by the Obama Justice Department that it is racially oppressive to disperse such unruly groups. Never mind that the law-abiding residents of high-crime areas beg the police to clear the corners and restore order. The ongoing rise of homicides and shootings in racially diverse cities is the result of the police backing off.

The best thing that the next president can do to lower the rising crime rate is to stop telling lies about crime and policing and to start telling the truth. He or she should recognize that policing today is data driven, that officers go to where victimization is occurring and where residents request help. Given the massive disparities in crime commission and victimization, policing will be heaviest in minority neighborhoods in order to save lives, the next president should explain. There is no evidence of systemic bias in the criminal-justice system; that myth has eaten away at the legitimacy of what is, in fact, one of the most scrupulously fair justice systems in the world.

However much a president may yearn for a set of federal policies to tackle crime, Washington’s role in crime-fighting is negligible. Crime and policing are overwhelmingly local matters; the feds are as prone to making matters worse as they are to solving local crime problems. President Obama has been foisting “implicit bias” training on federal law-enforcement agencies and strong-arming localities into coughing up the dollars for it as well. But such training is a grotesque waste of resources, embodying an empirically false proposition: that officers are routinely shooting blacks out of “implicit bias.” Research shows just the opposite.

Sadly, Hillary Clinton has embraced the junk science behind “implicit bias” training and promises to waste more taxpayer dollars on it. Officers are desperate for more training, but of the hands-on, tactical variety, helping them to make those agonizing shoot-don’t shoot decisions. Local training dollars should be devoted to tactical assistance and to communication skills, instead. But to spend federal money on even these worthy causes merely reroutes local tax dollars to Washington, then sends them back again to the localities, minus the considerable administrative cost of this shell-game. In other words, it’s worse than a zero-sum proposition. The feds should simply stay out of funding local activities — and certainly out of directing them.

Federal “criminal-justice reform,” which focuses on federal drug laws, is motivated by the claim that those laws are, at the very least, discriminatory in impact, if not also in intent. It is the rationale behind “criminal-justice reform” that is most destructive. The country could survive some tweaking of federal drug-sentencing laws. But to de-legitimize law and order with a false charge of racism is to inflict lasting damage. The next president must make clear that any statutory lowering of federal drug-trafficking sentences is an experiment in de-incarceration, not a response to racism.

The next Justice Department should articulate its standards for opening a “pattern or practice” investigation of police departments for systemic violations of civil rights. The Obama Administration has slapped more exorbitantly costly federal consent decrees on police departments following a “pattern or practice” investigation than any previous administration. The next Justice Department should open up its decision-making protocols for review.

Besides telling the truth about crime and policing, the next president should also acknowledge the real cause of inner-city violence: the breakdown of the family. Government programs can rarely compensate for a boy’s fatherlessness, especially when it is the norm in a community. Here, again, there are few federal policies available to address this profound problem. But the federal bully pulpit can be a powerful means of starting a necessary conversation — leading, ideally, to culture change.


Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The War on Cops.


Author’s Recommended Reading:

Heather Mac Donald, The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe (New York: Encounter Books, 2016).

Heather Mac Donald, “Is the Criminal-Justice System Racist?,” City Journal (Spring 2008).

Heather Mac Donald, “The Decriminalization Delusion,” City Journal (Autumn 2015).

Heather Mac Donald, “The Danger of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ Movement,” Imprimis Vol. 45 No. 4 (April 2016)


(Read the response by Danyelle Solomon.)

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