The Dangerous War on Cops

NYPD graduation ceremony, Decemember 29, 2015. (Carlos Allegri/Reuters)
Heather Mac Donald’s new book lays out the damning facts, with testimony from those most harmed — urban blacks in bad neighborhoods.

Those of us who grew up in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s were acutely sensitive to issues of policing. At that time, the city legendarily was a mess, and crime was out of control. Among the many problems in the city was that good policing was uncommon, and the police in any event were overworked and under supported. The police were known more for movies such as Fort Apache, The Bronx that did little credit to their work in keeping the city safe. These problems led to the formation of the Knapp Commission in 1970 and subsequent reforms, but real change took longer than expected.

Mayor David Dinkins, for example, had a tense relationship with the police. (“He never supports us on anything,” an officer was reported as saying by the New York Times in 1992.) It was not until Rudy Giuliani became New York’s mayor in 1994 and installed William Bratton as police chief that the crime rate started to drop, dramatically. As usual with a Heather Mac Donald analysis, in her new book, The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe, she has the figures handy:

Crime in New York dropped 12 percent in Bratton’s first year in office and 16 percent the next year, while crime rates in the rest of the nation were virtually flat. The New York crime rout became national news, spurring other police departments to adopt similar data-intensive, proactive tactics.

New York showed that it was possible to reduce crime, and other major cities who had suffered similar spikes in crime in the 1960s through the 1980s followed suit. Partially as a result, big cities have never been safer.

For some, the lessons of these years was that good policing makes a difference to city life for all citizens, including the poorest and most vulnerable. In this new book, Mac Donald portrays the war on cops in cities across the country and among elite circles, and how it serves ideological, not policing, goals. Her book is made more relevant by controversy surrounding the “Ferguson effect,” according to which crime increased in cities after violent protests against police occurred. Mac Donald was the first to identify this effect, which she traces to anti-police rhetoric and then the resulting wariness of police to enforce the law and arrest lawbreakers. Academics who initially challenged the reasons for this wave of violence have now largely retracted that challenge. This is part of a larger movement of what she calls “the delegitimation of law and order.”

Defending the police, and tactics such as stop-and-frisk, in these charged days is a delicate subject, to say the least. Cops have a near-monopoly on approved use of violence, and unintended clashes and improper conduct will therefore inevitably occur; however well-trained and supervised cops are, they are a self-selected group consisting at least in part of those who are comfortable with violence (note that no one speaks of “the war on firefighters”). And as several well-publicized incidents such as those in Ferguson and Baltimore attest, opposition to the police remains a flash point. But a core conservative insight on government is also applicable to policing: Power in whatever form must be cabined and controlled. Training, discipline, and community outreach must be part of any successful urban policing program. The recent shooting in Baton Rouge only underscores the need for this, rather than another bout of finger-pointing and media frenzy.

Reduced crime especially helps residents in the very neighborhoods activists believe are unfairly targeted by the police.

But, as Mac Donald shows, good policing should not be denigrated along with incidents of violence, because it does help prevent even more crime (as the Ferguson effect has revealed), and reduced crime especially helps residents in the very neighborhoods activists believe are unfairly targeted by the police. Mac Donald voices a full-throated defense of good policing, and she lobs an attack on both political activists who would scorn police protection and the academics who provide an intellectual cover for permitting lawlessness. Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is well known for her detailed analysis of statistics combined with real-life stories of people affected by leftist social policy, especially in the area of criminal justice.

The book is divided into more than 20 short chapters, covering topics such as “The Great Stop-and-Frisk Fraud,” “The Decriminalization Delusion,” and “The Ferguson Effect is Real.” Mac Donald has two major theses. The first is to remind us that policing is not a mystery and that it is not the case that some neighborhoods should be just left to rot, which she argues is the result of a mindset that treats criminals as arising solely from vague social forces and police as the enemy. Rather, certain techniques do work. The statistics reflected in Bratton’s achievement cannot be denied. She cites supporters of an NYC police program called Clean Halls that allows police to enter private buildings — Debbie McBride, for instance, is a hard-working superintendent who wants police in her building and trespassers out of it. Mac Donald castigates the media for not including these voices in the debate over crime. The Clean Halls program was largely overturned by a federal judge, in a decision that Mac Donald analyzes in detail here. And, as predicted, crime started to creep up after police got the message that their decisions would be reviewed in hindsight and could end up in legal wrangles lasting years. Only the massive flooding of “danger zones” with police prevented a sharp intake in crime in the wake of the decision.

Her second point is a broader one. The legacy of the 1960s is reasserting its influence: The ideology of “root causes” of crime coincides with rising violence and increasing toleration for lawlessness. The intellectual and media elites who oppose reforms that have demonstrably worked in cities across the country are not doing so because they have better police alternatives to offer. Rather, in the aftermath of Ferguson, “politicians and thought leaders who expressed solidarity” with the anti-police movements preferred the “thrill of righteousness,” as they “lovingly chronicled every protest.” Much better to don radical-chic outrage against the police, than to support the police and the hard work of rebuilding inner-city neighborhoods where crime, sadly, remains concentrated. As the history of New York City shows, proactive policing can make a dangerous city much less so; to forget those lessons is to go down a risky road indeed.

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