Think Cops Are Racists?  Think Again

Printed from:

Heather Mac Donald’s The War on Cops, written in 2016, is a first-class book that decisively refutes the frequently heard claim that America’s entire criminal justice system is “racist.”

Many of the candidates in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary debates made this charge a key part of their campaigns. But her book, written not long after the racially charged incidents in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, marshals 233 pages of facts and data to convincingly make the case that this claim is baseless. Her book not only persuasively demonstrates that the criminal justice system is not “racist” but also shows how the anti-policing movement in many parts of the country has caused a major increase of violent crime, as police officers retreat from pro-active policing.

Most of us have heard of Broken Windows policing, first introduced in New York City by Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s first police commissioner, William J. Bratton, in 1994. (Bratton, from Dorchester, also served as Boston’s police commissioner.) This policing philosophy holds that allowing a neighborhood to be trashed by litter, graffiti, public drunkenness, and other forms of public disorder breeds more disorder, as it shows that social control has collapsed. Bratton instructed the New York City police force to analyze crime data on a daily basis and to hold officers in the precincts accountable for the safety of the residents of their precincts. He also directed officers to stop and question those whose behavior looked suspicious or threatening. Broken Windows was so effective in lowering the crime rate in New York City that Broken Windows policing spread throughout the country. Over the next two decades, crime fell 50 percent across the nation and resulted in the revitalization of many cities.

Then Michael Brown was killed by Officer Daren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. The facts about the shooting, as revealed in the grand jury inquiry, are clear:  Brown, weighing nearly 300 pounds, had stolen a box of cigarillos from a shop and was walking down the middle of the street. He was accosted by Officer Wilson. Brown then charged Wilson, who was in his car, punched him in the face, and tried to grab his gun. Wilson reacted as any policer officer would in self-defense and shot Brown. The grand jury (with three African-Americans on it) refused to indict Wilson. Later the U.S. Department of Justice investigation also exonerated Wilson.

Nevertheless, Black Lives Matters, funded in part by George Soros after the Ferguson shooting, made Wilson a rhetorical punching bag. In a bit of genius marketing, the group promoted “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” as a rallying cry, claiming that Brown said that before Wilson shot him. (It’s a demonstrable lie, as a grand jury found and as The Washington Post later reported.)

No matter. The lie worked, and it sparked a movement to this day that asserts that American policing is lethally biased against blacks.

Then came what Heather Mac Donald calls the Ferguson Effect, which has served to reverse the remarkable two-decade long decrease in the U.S. crime rate. The Ferguson Effect did two things. It induced many in minority communities to believe the racist rhetoric about the police, resulting in many people turning against cops. This led to a tragic spree of assassinations of police officers across the nation. It also caused a retreat from the Broken Windows pro-active policing philosophy which had been the reason for lower crime rate nationwide. New York City under the leadership of Mayor Bill de Blasio (who grew up in Cambridge) has been the poster child for the retreat from Broken Windows policing.

What has been the result?  The FBI’s tally for homicides in 2015 in the United States shows a 12% increase over the previous year.  Cities with large black populations had the largest increases in homicides:  Washington D.C., 54%; Milwaukee, 72%; and 90% in Cleveland. An additional 900 black males were murdered in 2015 compared with 2014, bringing the black homicide total to more than 7,000. This was 2,000 more than the number of whites and Hispanics murdered, combined. Blacks make up approximately 12.8% of the U.S. population, but black homicides in 2015 represented more than 59% of the total in the United States.   

Were many of these black homicides the result of police killing?  In 2014, there were 6,095 black homicide victims with more than 90% killed by other blacks; in 2016, 90.1% of blacks were killed by other blacks. Clearly the major problem is not police killing unarmed black men but urban crime. Mac Donald reports that the Washington Post, hardly a conservative institution, documented 258 black victims of fatal police shooting in 2015, most of whom were killed as they were attacking police.

In 2016, two years after the events in Ferguson, 4,300 people were shot in Chicago, the vast majority of them black. The Chicago police accounted for 21 people shot – less 0.5% of these shootings. At the same time, two dozen children under the age of twelve were shot; none of these were shot by the police.  Nevertheless, Chicago members of Black Lives Matter chanted:  “CPD, KKK, how many children did you kill today?”

Let’s look at the crime statistics in New York City cited in The War on Cops.  In 2019, blacks made up approximately 24% of the population. According to NYC police statistics, 74% of all shooting suspects were black, as were 72% of shooting arrestees.  These arrests were not due to a “racist” New York City police force, as a majority of them are non-white.  The statistics nationwide show the same pattern:  According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 1976 to 2005 blacks committed over 52% of all murders in America – four times greater than their percentage of the population. The data was virtually the same in 2013.

This leads to the charge of progressives, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, as well as many of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, that the U.S criminal justice system is “racist,” as it incarcerates proportionately so many more African-Americans than whites. However, the statistics that Heather Mac Donald presents clearly show that blacks represent the greater proportion of prisoners because the black crime rate is so much higher. For example, in 2005, the black homicide rate was more than seven times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined.

Another canard is that unfair drug policies explain the high black incarceration rate. Once again Mac Donald shows how fallacious this argument is. She presents the evidence that in 2006 4,495 black crack sellers were tried in the federal court, which was less than 1% of the 562,000 black prisoners in federal and state jails that year. Another important data point is that drug offenders made up less than 16% of the state prison population, which accounts for 87% of the nation’s prisoners. The remainder are incarcerated largely because of violent crimes and property offenses.

Unfortunately, President Obama, rather than seeking to soothe racial rhetoric in this country, often stoked the fires of identity politics. For example, he told an NAACP conference in July 2015:  “The bottom line is that in too many places, black boys and black men, Latino boys and Latino men experience being treated differently under the law.” Yet as Mac Donald shows so persuasively, what lands black men in jail is their disproportionate rate of crime. There is not time nor space in this review to detail the enormous ream of data in this book, but The War on Cops does a masterful job of refuting the falsehoods about our “racist criminal justice system.” And what concerns Mac Donald most is that when the police retreat from pro-active policing, it is blacks and Hispanics in their communities who are most negatively affected by the breakdown in law and order.

Is there a way to reduce the prison population in America? In the final analysis, Mac Donald writes, “America does not have an incarceration problem; it has a crime problem. And the only answer to that is to rebuild the family – above all, the black family.” She quotes corrections expert Steve Martin, who says, “Young black males between the age of 17 and 26 drive the system. Family is the solution – and the work ethic.  You show me people with intact families and those folks work – their chances of ending up in prison are zero.”  Ms. Mac Donald rightly understands the cause of crime in America, but it is beyond the scope of The War on Cops to seek a solution for this intractable problem in our society.

This is the elephant in the room. Currently more than 70% of black children in the United States are born out of wedlock. Yet black boys need fathers at home to channel them in the right direction and help keep them out of trouble. Until America returns to its original understanding that the family is the first and most important department of health, education, and welfare, we will continue to have a crime program – not a criminal justice problem.

Ms. Mac Donald deserves our thanks and admiration for taking on this hugely divisive and emotional issue in the current ideological civil war raging in our country. In her The War on Cops book tour, she was threatened and sometimes needed police escorts on college and university campuses to appear. But she has great physical and moral courage, and she has not faltered in her efforts to tell the real story about policing in America.