The Data Don't Support Racist Policing Narrative

The Data Don't Support Racist Policing Narrative

The recent upheaval over kneeling for the national anthem at NFL games has led many analysts and protesting players, including Rashad Jennings, to lament that the original focus of these protests has been lost: police mistreatment of black men. But it may be for good reason.

Over the last year, Black Lives Matter has virtually disappeared from the news cycle. And critics of police brutality, such as Chris Hayes and Ta-Nehisi Coates seem to have shifted from emphasizing police brutality to a more generalized perception of racism, nourished by the actions and behavior of President Trump. In his newest writings, Coates never mentions police killings.  Instead, he demonizes Trump contending, “Not every Trump voter is a white supremacist. But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.” Other commentators, such as Jamele Hill and Charles Blow, and politicians, such as Maxine Waters, have followed suit. 

This shift away from a focus on racist police killings may be because recent facts have proven problematic to the old narrative. Consider, for instance, the number of unarmed blacks killed by police has been shrinking. In 2015, The Washington Post compilations indicate that 38 of the 94 unarmed men and women killed by police were African Americans; in 2016, only 17 of the 48 unarmed police killings were African American; and it is likely that in 2017 it will be even fewer. Meanwhile, as Heather MacDonald has documented, violent crime and homicide rates have increased for the second year in a row. In 2016, black homicides increased by nearly 900 to 7,881. If we are worried about protecting black lives — as we should be — why not focus on the conditions that have given rise to such violence?

Unfortunately, the anti-racist movement fundamentally rejects focusing on the behavioral side of this issue, believing that violence in predominately black communities is entirely a result of the hopelessness engendered by high joblessness. Thus only by solving the employment problem can we solve the violent crime problem. This was the position taken by Chicago Alderman George Cardenas who focused on the joblessness due to deindustrialization and government neglect.

The problem is violent crime and homicide statistics do not support this contention. Between 2007 and 2010, BLS statistics indicate that employment rates of black and white men 20 to 34 years old fell by 16 and 9.8 percent, respectively. And yet violent crime and homicide rates declined. BLS statistics indicate that employment rates have substantially rebounded; for black men 20–24 years old it increased by 17 percent between 2010 and 2016. By contrast, violent crime and homicide rates have increased. Indeed, as the liberal Brennan Center reported, “In the 30 largest cities, murder rates rose by 13.2 percent in 2015, and 14 percent in 2016.”  

In predominately black neighborhoods, violent crime rates decline only slightly as poverty and unemployment rates decline. As a result, even black neighborhoods with low poverty and unemployment rates have substantial violent crime rates when compared to similar white or Latino neighborhoods. Thus, neither poverty nor joblessness is sufficient to explain the relatively high violent crime rates in predominately black neighborhoods or the national increases in violent crime the last two years.

Such facts have led some, such as the sociologist Alex Vitale, to develop a more expansive approach to policing problems. Rather than focusing on police killings, Vitale argues that the problem is structural: Law enforcement is unable to handle effectively situations in which individuals are stopped for minor infractions or have clear mental problems. All too often those stopped for faulty tail lights or petty illegal sales, like New York’s Eric Garner, are treated as if they are armed and dangerous, resulting in unnecessarily tense confrontations that can lead to deadly force. In the last three years, fully one-quarter of all police killings involved individuals with mental health problems. In many case, their mental instability was known before police responded, as with Seattle’s Charleena Lyles. When police are told that an individual suffers from mental illness, Vitale counsels that social work personnel should be involved and dictate the response.

For many social justice warriors, such a constructive approach to improving policing may prove unsatisfying because it directs policy away from dealing with the racism they believe is pervasive in society and worsening under President Trump. Unfortunately, however, this myopic focus will do little to improve the lives of black Americans. Lawmakers should instead focus on reforming law enforcement so as to enable police officers to combat, effectively and humanely, the rising violent crime that is disproportionality affecting black Americans.

Robert Cherry is economics professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

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