Book Review: The War on Cops

COMMENTARY Crime and Justice

Book Review: The War on Cops

Nov 29, 2016 12 min read
John Malcolm

Vice President, Institute for Constitutional Government

John is Vice President for the Institute for Constitutional Government and Director of the Meese Center and Simon Center.

In The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe, Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, offers a scathing, data-driven account of the misguided and sometimes malicious attacks on the law enforcement community that are spreading like kudzu across the country—and of their consequences. Indeed, as I write this, reports out of San Diego of another officer being killed and another seriously wounded are flashing across the screen.[1] This kind of event has become all too commonplace. At the same time, rates of violent crime are creeping upwards in many of our largest cities after a decades-long decrease.

The public should be, but too often is not, horrified by spectacles such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists in St. Paul, Minnesota marching in the streets yelling, “Pigs in a blanket, fry ‘em like bacon”;[2] or BLM protestors in New York City chanting, “What do we want? Dead Cops! When do we want it? Now!”;[3] or a message posted by the African American Defense League urging its followers to “hold a barbeque” and “sprinkle Pigs Blood!”;[4] or the Facebook posting by a man in Detroit following the slaying of five Dallas police officers which read, “All lives can’t matter until black lives matter. Kill all white cops.”[5] One would think that, in any civilized society, such sentiments would be universally condemned as barbaric. Instead, such deplorable rhetoric is met with sympathy and tolerance by some on the Left.[6] One can acknowledge, as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich did recently, that “[i]f you are a normal white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.” But one should also acknowledge, as Gingrich did, that, from the perspective of the police, “[e]very time you walk up to a car you could be killed. Every time you go into a building where there’s a robbery you can be killed.”[7] The hateful rhetoric quoted above only serves to incite violence, and, to put it mildly, generates more heat than light.

Yet some elected officials act more like rabble-rousing community organizers fanning the flames of racial tension, perhaps inadvertently, rather than acting like responsible public officials seeking to restore calm and respect for law and order.[8] Racial tensions in this country are clearly on the rise. A new Rasmussen poll indicates that 60% of likely voters think race relations have gotten worse since Barack Obama became president, up from 42% in late 2014,[9] and African Americans are far more likely to believe that they are treated unfairly by the police than whites.[10]

While, no doubt, there may be some police officers who harbor racist thoughts and tendencies—which is likely the case with every profession—that number is, I strongly suspect, very small and diminishing rapidly over time. And, of course, some police officers do engage in misconduct, occasionally with deadly consequences. Earlier this year, five New Orleans police officers pleaded guilty in connection with the killings that took place on Danziger Bridge in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (including one officer who pleaded guilty to covering up the misdeeds),[11] and video footage showed a South Carolina police officer shooting and killing a clearly unarmed man who was running away from him.[12] And many people (black and white) can recount stories in which they were treated rudely, perhaps unjustifiably so, by police officers. Do BLM protestors have a point? Yes, although their tactics and rhetoric are often inconducive to fostering improved relations between the police and the communities they serve. Clearly some police officers have reacted to tense situations with excessive force, most likely the result of inadequate training[13] rather than racism, which sometimes results in a tragic outcome. Of course, when police officers do use excessive force or commit an unjustified homicide, the matter should be investigated, with officers encouraged to come forward to say what happened, which may require something of a cultural change within the law enforcement community. And there should be consequences, up to and including criminal prosecution against those involved and those who attempt to cover up what happened, as happened recently in New Orleans and in New York City in the Abner Louima case.[14]

To hear some protestors, though, one would think that most police officers are card-carrying members of the Ku Klux Klan who run around indiscriminately shooting young black men. Indeed, every incident in which a black citizen is shot by a white police officer becomes part of the ongoing narrative of racist-cops-running-rampant, even when it is definitively established beyond peradventure that the shooting was justified, as was the case when Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Long after it was clear that Brown had attacked Wilson and was grabbing for his gun and that the whole “Hands up, don’t shoot!” story was built on a pack of lies,[15] Officer Wilson was drummed out of the police force,[16] Jesse Jackson decried the fact that Brown’s “killer walked away,”[17] and Michael Brown’s mother (whose personal grief is, of course, understandable) was invited to the stage at the Democratic National Convention.[18]

Mac Donald chronicles the events in Ferguson, including the ensuing riots, which have been repeated to devastating effect in other cities following police-citizen confrontations. She argues that the increasing hostility toward—and murder of—police officers has led to a “Ferguson Effect” in which police officers in some communities are standing down by cutting back on proactive policing particularly in high crime areas out of fear for their safety or of being falsely accused of racism, which is, in turn, leading to more crime.[19]

While some question whether the Ferguson Effect is real,[20] there is considerable support for the phenomenon. As a veteran Boston police officer recently stated, “Sometimes we feel like our hands are tied behind our backs and people are out to get us.”[21] Although reluctant to use the term “Ferguson Effect,” FBI Director James Comey admitted to being deeply concerned about the uptick in violence in many of our inner cities and stated that he has “a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year. And that wind is surely changing [police] behavior.”[22] After analyzing data from ten cities that saw a 33% increase in homicides in 2015 and which have large African American populations, Richard Rosenfeld, a well-respected criminologist who was initially skeptical of the existence of the Ferguson Effect, now says that “[t]he only explanation that gets the timing right is a version of the Ferguson effect,” which is now his “leading hypothesis” to explain the dramatic increase in crime.[23]

Are law enforcement officers nervous? No doubt, and for good reason. Tensions are high. According to Donald Mihalek of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, forensic studies have established that a suspect with a gun in his waistband can draw and fire his weapon in 0.8 seconds, faster than the time it takes for an officer to respond.[24] Moreover, Mac Donald contends, “an officer’s chance of getting killed by a black assailant is 18.5 times higher than the chance of an unarmed black person getting killed by a cop.”[25] When police officers in tense and unknown circumstances hesitate to act, they die.[26]

Fearing for their safety, officers in major cities are increasingly patrolling in pairs,[27] and in Baltimore, where crime rates have shot through the roof (murders have increased by 63% in 2015), police officers have quit in large numbers.[28] Who can blame them? Through August 1, 2016, firearms-related killings of law enforcement officers are up a staggering 70% over this period last year (from 20 to 34)[29] and ambush killings are up nearly 400% (3 to 14),[30] according to data compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. In 2014, law enforcement officers were assaulted 15,725 times, resulting in 13,824 injuries;[31] those numbers are likely up too this year. While these figures have been worse in years past,[32] they are, nonetheless, deeply disturbing. And while there may be other factors contributing to the recent upsurge in violent crime—such as the heroin epidemic and the violence that has ensued as Mexican drug cartels and affiliated gangs compete for new customers and territories[33]—any hesitancy by police officers to engage in discretionary proactive law enforcement efforts will only serve to exacerbate an already bad situation.

Unfortunately, the facts seem to bear this out. Homicide rates in 56 large U.S. cities were up approximately 17% in 2015 over 2014 (much more in some cities), the largest increase in a quarter century.[34] Homicide rates have continued to rise at an alarming rate during the first half of 2016; they are up another 15% in 51 large cities that have reported data, according to the Major Cities Chiefs Association.[35] While some cities, such as Milwaukee, have seen declines, others such as Chicago have seen dramatic increases (316 homicides in the first half of 2016, compared to 211 in the first half of 2015).[36] And it’s not just homicides that are up in the first half of this year; there have been more than 600 more non-fatal shootings, over 1,000 more robberies, and nearly 2,000 more aggravated assaults compared to the first half of last year.[37] Again, violent crime rates are still substantially below where they were in the 1960s through the early 1990s, but this reversal is quite dramatic, and the trend is quite alarming. What is needed to combat crime in communities of color is more of a police presence, not less.

If the body count is racking up in many of our inner cities, it is not because police officers are wantonly shooting black people; it is because black people, predominantly black men, are shooting each other. As Mac Donald correctly notes, “young black men commit homicide at nearly ten times the rate of young white and Hispanic males combined,” and their victims are overwhelmingly other black residents who live in their communities. In Chicago, for instance, in 2015, 2,460 African American people were shot (nearly seven each day), compared to only 78 white people (one every 4.6 days); in 2011 (the last year for which data was released by the Chicago police), 71% of those committing murder were black and 75% of murder victims were black.[38] Homicide is now the number one cause of death among African Americans between the ages of 1 and 44.[39] And, Mac Donald adds, “until the black crime rate comes down, police presence is going to be higher in black neighborhoods, increasing the chance that when police tactics go awry, they will have a black victim.”

As Mac Donald points out, nobody on the Left seem to want to talk about how the crime problem in our inner cities has been exacerbated by, among other things, rampant drug use, high dropout rates, and the breakdown of the family structure, where over 70% of African American children are now born to single mothers.[40] Mac Donald also notes that nobody wants to talk about the fact that the people who benefit the most from aggressive policing are law-abiding African Americans who live in the inner cities and are trying to lead decent lives, but are afraid to go out at night, let their children play outside, or go to work. These same people also lose much-needed goods, services, and jobs because entrepreneurs refuse to open businesses in crime-plagued communities; as Mac Donald reminds us, “Lowered crime is a precondition to economic revival, not its consequence.” Any dialogue between the police and local community leaders ought to acknowledge and address these issues too if any real progress is likely to occur.

The War on Cops is not without its flaws. There were times (several actually) where I found Mac Donald’s rhetoric too acerbic, and she makes some arguments with which I am sympathetic but not in complete agreement. For example, she is vehemently opposed to the criminal justice reform movement (“America does not have an incarceration problem; it has a crime problem.”), whereas I have written[41] and spoken[42] in favor of some forms of criminal justice reform. Mac Donald states that those who favor criminal justice reform do so because they contend, falsely, that our country has a “mass incarceration” problem or because the criminal justice system is suffused with racism—neither of which I believe. Nonetheless, Mac Donald’s views on this topic, as on all others she covers, are as thoughtful and articulate as they are provocative.

Law enforcement officers have a difficult and dangerous job to do. As former President George W. Bush said at the recent memorial service honoring the five slain Dallas law enforcement officers, “Most of us imagine if the moment called for [it], that we would risk our lives to protect a spouse or a child. Those wearing the uniform assume that risk for the safety of strangers. They and their families share the unspoken knowledge that each new day can bring new dangers.”[43]

We should never forget it and should honor and support those whose job it is “to swallow the sorrows of humanity—from the banal to the truly tragic—and to return to work the next day and do it all over again.”[44] As Heather Mac Donald points out time and again in The War on Cops, things are bad. They could, however, get much worse. After all, Mac Donald notes, “The trend of increasing crime rests on firmer statistical evidence than does the claim that we are living through an epidemic of racist police killings.”

This piece first appeared in the Federalist Society Review