Editor’s note: The following are comments submitted to the Committee on the Judiciary of the United States House of Representatives in response to the Oversight Hearing on Policing Practices and Law Enforcement Accountability.
It is understandable and appropriate, when viewing the horrific arrest and death of George Floyd, to ask whether we are seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to policing and the brutal indifference to human life. The history of law enforcement in the U.S. was interwoven with slavery and segregation. The memory of policing’s complicity with racial oppression cannot be easily erased.
But I urge this committee to reject the proposition that law enforcement today is systemically biased. The evidence does not support that charge. Police officials and officers across the country have expressed their disgust at the chillingly callous behavior seen in the Floyd video. It is a violation of everything that the profession currently stands for. Embracing the systemic bias allegation will only lead to more lives lost to criminal violence; many of them, sadly, will be black.
To move from the stomach-churning specificity of Mr. Floyd’s case to broader numbers is jarring. Nevertheless, if the charge against policing is systemic racism, we need to look at the system as a whole.
Policing today is driven by crime data and community demands for help. Victim reports send police disproportionately to minority communities because that is where people are most being hurt by violent street crime. Blacks between the ages of ten and 43 die of homicide at thirteen times the rate of whites, according to the CDC. In New York City, blacks make up 73% of all shooting victims, though they are 23% of the city’s population. In Chicago in 2016, there were 4300 shooting victims, almost all black. Among the two dozen victims under the age of 12 was a three-year-old shot on Father’s Day who is now paralyzed for life and a ten-year-old shot on Labor Day whose pancreas and spleen were ripped apart. In Minneapolis last September, a two-year-old girl was shot in her backyard at 1 am; another Minneapolis two-year-old, Le’Vonte King Jason Jones, was killed in broad daylight in 2016 by gang rivals of his mother’s boyfriend. These are the realities that police commanders in urban areas face daily.
But community requests for help also determine police deployment, and the most urgent requests come from the law-abiding residents of high-crime neighborhoods. An elderly cancer amputee in the Mt. Hope section of the Bronx described to me her fear of going into her building lobby, since it was so often occupied by trespassing youth hanging out and selling drugs. The only time she felt safe was when law enforcement was there: “As long as you see the police, everything’s A-OK. You can come down and get your mail and talk to decent people.” This vulnerable senior citizen longed for the surveillance watchtower that the local precinct had erected on her block several summers earlier to deter shootings. Anti-police activists would undoubtedly condemn such a watchtower as a weapon of the oppressive police state. To the cancer amputee, it was a literal godsend. “It was the peacefulest summer ever. I could sit outside at night. Please, Jesus,” she said, send the surveillance tower back.
Another elderly lady blurted out in the middle of a police-community meeting in the South Bronx’s 41st Precinct: “’How lovely when we see the police. They are my friends!” This sentiment has been echoed time and again in the dozens of police community meetings I have attended. The percentage of black respondents in a 2015 Roper poll who wanted more police in their community was twice as high as the percentage of white respondents who wanted more police. The activists who seek to disband police departments will have to explain to these terrified seniors and other law-abiding residents that they are just going to have to fend for themselves.
Are the police nevertheless engaging in an epidemic of racist violence, as we hear daily? They are not. For the last five years, the police have killed about 1000 civilians a year, the vast majority of those victims armed or otherwise dangerous. In 2019, the police killed 235 blacks, most of them also armed or dangerous, out of 1004 police shooting victims overall. That roughly 25% ratio has also remained stable. It is less than what the black crime rate would predict, since police shootings are a function of the rate at which officers encounter armed and violent suspects, a fact confirmed most recently by a 2019 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the 75 largest U.S. counties, which is where most of the population resides, blacks constituted around 60 percent of all robbery and murder defendants, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, even though blacks comprise only 15 percent of the population in those counties.
What about unarmed victims of fatal police shootings? As of June 1, the Washington Post’s data base of fatal police shootings showed nine unarmed black victims and 19 unarmed white victims of fatal police shootings in 2019. That number of black unarmed victims is down 76% from 2015, when the Post began keeping its data base. The Post defines “unarmed” loosely to include suspects who have grabbed an officer’s gun or who are fleeing from a car stop with a loaded semi-automatic pistol in their vehicle. Those nine allegedly unarmed black victims represent .1% of all black homicide victims, which number about 7500 a year, more than all white and Hispanic homicide victims combined.
After the tally of nine unarmed black victims was reported in certain news outlets last week, the Post reclassified over a dozen of its armed victims of police shootings as unarmed. This reclassification occurred six months after the Post had already closed its 2019 data base. The reclassification was not done on the basis of any new information; it was undoubtedly done to get the black victim numbers up. The Post is now showing 15 unarmed black victims in 2019. That is .2% of all black homicide victims, still a negligible number.
No one hears about unarmed white victims, because they do not fit the anti-police narrative. In 2016, in a case that adumbrated Mr. Floyd’s death, an agitated schizophrenic, Tony Timpa, called 911, saying he was off his medication. Three Dallas police officers held the handcuffed Timpa on the ground for 13 minutes with a knee to his back, while he pleaded for help more than 30 times. They continued joking and laughing after he stopped moving or making any sounds. His death was ruled a homicide, caused by the officers’ physical restraint and by cocaine.
In Mesa, Arizona, in 2016, a cop unleashed a barrage of gunfire from his AR-15 rifle at a 26-year-old man who had been reported as having a gun. The victim was down on his hands and knees in a hotel corridor, trying to comply with the conflicting commands that a sergeant was screaming at him, and begging “Please don’t shoot me!”
In 2015, a 50-year-old man in Tuscaloosa involved in a domestic violence incident ran at the officer with a spoon and was fatally shot. A 25-year-old in Des Moines led the police on a car chase and walked quickly towards the officer when he got out of the car and was fatally shot. A 21-year-old in Akron escaped from a grocery store robbery on a bike and didn’t take his hand out of his waistband when commanded to do so and was fatally shot.
The point here is not to justify any of these deaths, it is to rebut the claim that questionable tactics occur only in the case of black suspects. Indeed, it is premature to conclude that the Floyd brutality was a product of racial animus at all, as opposed to poor training and an unfit temperament.
No police critic has ever suggested a benchmark for evaluating the number of officer use of force incidents. Ideally, officers would take no one’s life in the course of their duties. But in light of the number of arrests that officers make each year--around 11 million–and the number of deadly weapons attacks on officers—27 a day in just two-thirds of the nation’s police departments--it is not clear that 1000 civilian deaths, the vast majority occurring in the face of a potentially deadly attack, show a law enforcement profession that is out of control.
Nevertheless, there are reasonable measures to further lower officer use of force--above all, more hands-on tactical training, practice in de-escalation, and techniques to control stress. Federal support should go to such practical training, not to implicit bias sessions, which are an insult to officers’ intelligence and street knowledge. Nor should police hiring be based on race. A 2015 Justice Department analysis of the Philadelphia Police Department found that white police officers were less likely than black or Hispanic officers to shoot unarmed black suspects. Existing efforts to boost minority hiring in many departments have already resulted in the elimination of a clean criminal record requirement and in lowered standards for reading comprehension and writing. These changes risk increasing disciplinary problems, rather than reducing them.
Figuring out how to encourage officers to intervene in their fellow officers’ questionable behavior is necessary, though doing so is especially challenging when it is a supervisor who is misusing his authority. Some powerful unions place too many roadblocks in the way of firing incompetent or abusive cops. Getting rid of qualified immunity, however, will only lead to cops shutting down further.
This committee should denounce the defunding of police agencies. Shrinking their resources will result in poorer service to the law-abiding residents of high crime areas. Officers in depleted departments who cannot get back-up when they face dangerous suspects will be even more stressed out, and more at risk of poor judgment. Response times will increase. Cash-starved agencies will train less, not more. Lower pay scales will result in less qualified recruits.
Shifting police funding to social services will not solve crime. For decades, New York City was the welfare capital of the United States, spending one-seventh of all government welfare dollars. Crime continued to rise. Crime started falling in the city only when the New York Police Department adopted the data-driven policing that has now become the norm across the country.
But the most urgent task before this committee is to repudiate the narrative that law enforcement is infected by racism. The atmosphere in which officers are working is becoming more vicious and volatile. The attempts on officers’ lives, some successful, that we have seen in the last two weeks will increase. And under the pervasive charge that they are racist, officers will back off of proactive policing in minority neighborhoods. The victims will be overwhelmingly black.
In 2015 and 2016, when officers also retreated to purely reactionary policing, an additional 2000 black males died, the largest two-year increase in homicide in half a century. Harvard economist Roland Fryer, University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell, and University of Utah economist Richard Fowles have recently documented what I have called the Ferguson Effect: the sharp rise in crime during episodes of pervasive anti-cop rhetoric and depolicing.
There are bad cops of all races who must be removed. But the overwhelming majority of officers are motivated by a desire to help the most vulnerable among us. Though many officers work under unimaginable conditions, encountering the worst consequences of pervasive family breakdown, they continue to believe fervently in the good people who support them. If this mania of cop hatred is not quelled, those good people will suffer further and the nation’s cities will become places of fear and decay.
Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor at City Journal, and the author of the bestselling War on Cops and The Diversity Delusion. Follow her on Twitter here.
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