Politics & Policy

Victimhood: Such a Comfort

The war of words over racial profiling.

I recently reviewed — and heartily endorsed — Heather Mac Donald’s latest book, Are Cops Racist? How the War Against the Police Harms Black Americans. At the risk of being seen as some p.r. flack in her employ, today we’ll once again visit the racial-profiling issue and Mac Donald’s campaign against the forces comprising what she bluntly but accurately calls the “anti-police juggernaut.”

Since the book’s release Mac Donald has been doing her bit as an author by making the talk-radio rounds, and on Monday she was a guest on Michael Medved’s syndicated program. (If you can’t hear Medved’s show where you live you are being badly served.) After a few minutes of introductory discussion between author and host, callers were invited to express their views on the matters at hand. There followed the inevitable series of anecdotes from black listeners who were certain that racial profiling is widely and routinely practiced because they themselves had suffered some indignity at the hands of white police officers. Mac Donald was unfailingly courteous with these callers, just as she was when similarly challenged on Larry Elder’s radio program last month, but what she was too polite to mention was the fact that anecdotes, no matter how numerous or how shocking in their details, do not disprove the central thesis of her book: that the war against the police ultimately harms the very minorities the anti-profiling crowd purports to defend.

Now, before the Dunphy inbox gets swamped in a tsunami of angry mail, neither Mac Donald nor I would deny that there are some racists working as police officers in cities large and small across America, and that some small number of cops may find inordinate glee in bringing misery to members of this or that minority group. Every profession has its embarrassments; law enforcement is no exception. But anecdotes are just that, and they are reduced to near insignificance under the accumulated weight of Mac Donald’s research. Medved himself confronted her with the account of a personal friend, described as a very successful black businessman, who is frequently stopped while driving his Mercedes sports car. Well, perhaps Medved’s friend truly has been the victim of unjust treatment. Without knowing more about him and his driving habits it’s impossible to say. But, speaking from experience, I can report that few people, be they black or white or what have you, buy a Mercedes sports car for the exhilaration they derive while cruising along at the speed limit. And when presented with the choice of stopping a speeding Mercedes or a Honda Accord going just as fast, most cops are going to stop the Mercedes, no matter what color the driver is.

But since anecdotes seem to carry so much weight with the cop-bashing crowd, I have a few of my own, two of which I’m pleased to share here. A few weeks ago I found myself directing traffic away from the scene of some catastrophe or other, and as I was tending to my flare pattern a young black man approached and struck up a conversation. He was about 20, with a muscular build and his hair done in dreadlocks. He lived in an area not far from the station where I work, a neighborhood well known for its gang activity, drug sales, and the occasional drive-by shooting. In short, he was the sort of fellow who, if one is to believe the horror stories told by the anti-profiling types, would frequently find himself up against the wall with some cop rifling through his pockets. “So tell me,” I said, “do you ever get messed with by the cops around here?” “Never,” he answered. “And why do you suppose that is?” I asked. “Because,” he said, “I’m not out here acting a fool.”

A few days later I chanced to meet a man whose very bearing announced to the world, or at least to people who’ve been cops for a while, that he was a straight-up ex-con, fresh off the prison yard. Rare is the convict who can leave his penitentiary mannerisms behind the walls when he’s turned loose on the world, and this guy was no exception. Over the course of what was a surprisingly pleasant and candid conversation, I learned that his criminal record was one best described as opulent. He was on parole for operating a large-scale cocaine-distribution ring, and he described for me his journey from petty crime to big-time dope dealing to his stint in the big house, a journey that included shooting gang rivals and being shot himself. And, needless to say, he had had quite a number of contacts with cops from various local, state, and federal law-enforcement agencies, contacts considerably less cordial than the one he and I enjoyed that evening. “And in all that time,” I asked him, “did you ever get hassled when you didn’t deserve it?” He considered the question for a moment, a wry smile coming to his face. “Nah,” he said finally, “I was always up to something.”

One is unlikely to hear such candor from those calling radio talk shows to confront Heather Mac Donald and others who dare challenge the orthodoxy that racism and racial profiling are rampant in America’s police departments. But, while I concede that isolated instances of police behavior that’s obnoxious at best and criminal at worst have occurred, I think a phenomenon I call “me too-ism” is at play here. Just as the number of people who claim to have witnessed Sandy Koufax’s perfect game probably exceeds one million, for every instance of bona fide racial profiling that actually occurs, 50 or more people will hear the tale and later claim it happened to them. Such is the temptation, the allure, the powerful seduction that comes with cloaking oneself in that comforting mantle of victimhood.

— Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.


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