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Taking Stock of a Most Violent Year

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Taking Stock of a Most Violent Year

The Wall Street Journal January 25, 2021
Policing & Public SafetyAll
Urban PolicyCrime

Some blamed the mayhem on the pandemic, but persistent cop-bashing emboldened criminals.

The year 2020 likely saw the largest percentage increase in homicides in American history. Murder was up nearly 37% in a sample of 57 large and medium-size cities. Based on preliminary estimates, at least 2,000 more Americans, most of them black, were killed in 2020 than in 2019. Mainstream media and many politicians claim the pandemic caused this bloodbath, but the chronology doesn’t support that assertion. And now the criminal-justice policies supported by President Biden promise to exacerbate the current crime wave, while ignoring its actual causes.

The local murder increases in 2020 were startling: 95% in Milwaukee, 78% in Louisville, Ky., 74% in Seattle, 72% in Minneapolis, 62% in New Orleans, and 58% in Atlanta, according to data compiled by crime analyst Jeff Asher. Dozens of children, overwhelmingly black, were killed in drive-by shootings. They were slain in their beds, living rooms and strollers. They were struck down at barbecues, in their yards, in malls, in their parents’ cars, and at birthday parties. Fifty-five children were killed in Chicago in 2020, 17 in St. Louis, and 11 in Philadelphia. In South Los Angeles alone, 40 children were shot, some non-lethally, through September.

Why this mayhem? The St. Louis Post-Dispatch expresses the conventional wisdom: because of the “economic, civic and interpersonal stress” from the coronavirus pandemic. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot blamed pandemic-related “frustration, anger . . . trauma and mental health challenges.” But crime fell during the first months of the pandemic shutdowns, both in the U.S. and globally. Only at the end of May did that trend reverse itself, and only in the U.S., thanks to a surge in drive-by shootings.

Eighteen people were murdered in Chicago on May 31—the city’s most violent day in six decades, according to University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell. Other American cities saw similar spikes in mayhem, all tied to the street violence unleashed by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. The political and media response to Floyd’s death amplified the existing narrative that policing was lethally racist. The ensuing riots received little condemnation from Democratic leaders and a weak response from the criminal-justice system.

Cops now face a poisonous environment. Since the summer, they have been shot in the head, firebombed and assaulted with lethal projectiles. An officer providing first aid at a crime scene may be met with a hail of rocks and bottles. Resistance is now the norm. Officers believe they face a political and legal environment that is eager to sacrifice them in the name of racial justice.

As a result, the calculus for engagement has changed. An Oakland, Calif., officer who has arrested dozens of known murderers and gang members over his career tells me he is scared for the first time, “not because the criminals are necessarily more violent, even though they are.” But if he has to use force on a resisting suspect, he could lose his career, his life, or his liberty, he says. A “simple cost-benefit analysis” recommends simply responding to calls for service and collecting a paycheck. “All cops now understand this.” 

“Every day you have to decide whether to get out of your patrol car and do something or do nothing,” a veteran Chicago detective reports. If you opt for real police work, you may end up in jail or without a job if an interaction goes off script. 

“Proactive police work is dead,” says Lt. Bob Kroll of the Minneapolis Police Department. The data bear him out. In Minneapolis, police stops fell more than 50% over the summer. The number of police-civilian contacts plummeted in Philadelphia, Oakland, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere. Across the country, specialized police units that got guns off the street were disbanded, since they were said to have a disparate impact on African-Americans. Police chiefs and prosecutors have refused to enforce low-level quality-of-life laws for the same reason. 

The consequence: More gang members are carrying guns, since their chances of being stopped are slim. They are enthusiastically killing each other and innocent bystanders out of opportunism, not economic deprivation or existential angst.

The anarchy of 2020 has continued into 2021. Shootings in South Los Angeles rose 742% in the first two weeks of the year. In Oakland, homicides were up 500% and shootings up 126% through Jan. 17. In New York, murders were up 42% and shooting victims up 15% through Jan. 17. Carjackings, already up 135% in Chicago in 2020, are spilling into the city’s suburbs. On Jan. 16, a woman was pulled from her car in Aurora, Ill., and shot in the back by carjackers who had already stolen two vehicles earlier that day. Four other Chicago suburbs were hit that weekend. In Chicago proper, there have been 144 carjackings through Jan. 21, with 166 guns recovered. 

Mr. Biden’s presidency augurs no turnaround. During the campaign, he claimed without justification that African-Americans rightly feared that their loved ones could be killed by a cop every time they stepped outside. His criminal-justice blueprint promises to eliminate racial disparities in law enforcement. Given vast racial disparities in the commission of crimes, that can be done only by eliminating law enforcement itself. 

Nevertheless, the Biden Justice Department will treat disparate stop or arrest rates as evidence of police bias and seek to put as many police departments as possible under costly consent decrees. It will even try to extend its oversight authority to local prosecutors’ offices, should district attorneys generate racially disparate charging data (an inevitability, in light of the reality of crime).

The Biden policing agenda is based on a false conceit, however. In 2020 the police killed 15 unarmed African-Americans and 21 unarmed whites, according to the Washington Post’s database of fatal police shootings. The Post defines “unarmed” to include suspects fleeing the cops in stolen cars who attempted further carjackings en route, who then appeared to threaten the pursuing officer with a gun, and who violently resisted arrest. Those 15 “unarmed” blacks will represent 0.17% of all black homicide deaths in 2020, assuming a black murder toll of about 8,600 victims in 2020, as seems probable. 

The police aren’t the problem in the black community, criminals are. The many law-abiding residents of troubled areas know this and beg for vigorous law enforcement. High-profile homicide trials of police officers will take place this year in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Louisville and Rochester, N.Y. If there are acquittals, more riots—followed by an even greater shooting surge—seem likely. It is urgent that public officials stop demonizing the police.

This piece originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal (paywall)

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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

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