Ideally officers would never need to take anyone's life. But the data on police killings doesn't support reducing or abolishing law enforcement.
The video of George Floyd’s tragic death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer has led many to ask whether it represents the tip of an iceberg of police brutality. For centuries, United States law enforcement was interwoven with slavery and segregation, and that memory cannot be easily erased. But the evidence does not support the charge that biased police are systematically killing Black Americans in fatal shootings.
Much of modern policing is driven by crime data and community demands for help. The African American community tends to be policed more heavily, because that is where people are disproportionately hurt by violent street crime. In New York City in 2018, 73% of shooting victims were Black, though Black residents comprise only 24% of the city’s population.
Nationally, African Americans between the ages of 10 and 34 die from homicide at 13 times the rate of white Americans, according to researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Justice Department.
Community requests also determine police deployment, and the most urgent requests often come from law-abiding residents of high-crime neighborhoods.
An elderly resident in the Mount Hope neighborhood of the Bronx once described to me her fear of entering 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 around: As long as she saw the police, she told me, everything is OK. You can come down and get your mail and talk to decent people.
Improve — don't abolish — police
This sentiment is echoed in the dozens of police community meetings I’ve attended. Though they also want improved quality of policing, the percentage of Black respondents in a 2015 Gallup poll who wanted more police in their community was more than twice as high as the percentage of white respondents who said the same. Activists who seek to disband police departments will have to explain to these law-abiding residents that they will in essence just have to fend for themselves.
Such self defense may be understandable if the police were engaging in an epidemic of shooting unarmed Black men and women, as we now hear daily — but there is no such epidemic. For the last five years, the police have fatally shot about 1,000 civilians annually, the vast majority of whom were armed or otherwise dangerous. Black people account for about 23% of those shot and killed by police; they are about 13% of the U.S. population.
As of the June 22 update, the Washington Post’s database of fatal police shootings showed 14 unarmed Black victims and 25 unarmed white victims in 2019. The database does not include those killed by other means, like George Floyd.
The number of unarmed Black shooting victims is down 63% from 2015, when the database began. There are about 7,300 Black homicide victims a year. The 14 unarmed victims in fatal police shootings would comprise only 0.2% of that total.
Ideally, officers would never take anyone’s life in the course of their duties. But given the number of arrests they make each year (around 10 million) and the number of deadly-weapons attacks on officers (an average of 27 per day in just two-thirds of the nation’s police departments, according to a 2014 analysis), it is not clear that these 1,000 civilian shooting deaths suggest that law enforcement is out of control.
Nevertheless, we can do better. Cops are desperate for more hands-on tactical training, de-escalation practice, and techniques to control stress. Federal support should focus on such practical training to ensure that officers are prepared for the difficult encounters they face daily.
A fully-functioning police force
Reducing police resources will ultimately result in poorer service to the law-abiding residents of high-crime areas. Officers without back-up will be more stressed and at higher risk of poor judgment. Response times will increase. Cash-starved agencies will train less, not more, while lower pay scales will result in less qualified recruits.
A reduced police presence in minority neighborhoods will claim more Black lives. When officers back off of proactive policing under accusations of racism, violence shoots up. That was the case in cities recently examined by Harvard economists. After investigations opened up into a media-grabbing instance of police use of deadly force in Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Ferguson, Missouri, and Riverside, California, there were almost 900 excess homicides and almost 34,000 excess felonies, their study found.
Cops pulled back from discretionary activity — questioning a suspicious person on a known drug corner, for example — and simply drove on by. Such stops are voluntary; cops are not mandated to make them.
In Chicago, the Harvard economists found, the number of police-civilian interactions decreased by almost 90% in the month after the investigation into deadly force was announced. In Riverside, interactions decreased 54%. In St. Louis, self-initiated police activities declined by 46%.
By contrast, in cities where incidents of police use of deadly force were under investigation, but did not go viral or grab national attention, homicides and total crime went down. Police officers were not afraid to continue policing.
This year, on Sunday, May 31, Chicago had its deadliest day in 60 years. Over the course of that weekend, 25 people were killed and another 85 shot. The reason: An overmatched police force was overwhelmed by the rampant looting and upheavals and had little deterrent presence on the ground. “There’s suddenly this vacuum that opens up,” said Max Kapustin, the senior research director at a local crime lab, and “you see an absurd amount of carnage.”
Bad cops of all races must be removed. But the overwhelming majority of officers are in their jobs because of people like that Mount Hope resident who looks out her window hoping to see the police nearby. It is these vulnerable residents who will be most hurt if the “defund police” activists have their way.
This piece originally appeared at USA Today
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.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images