Political Pandering to the Anti-Police Agenda Is Costing Lives

A demonstrator holds a sign during events marking Juneteenth in New York City City, June 19, 2020. (Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters)
Elected and appointed officials in local and state government have abdicated the first responsibility of the offices they hold.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he only people who might better know the streets of urban America than the cops who patrol them are the crooks who haunt them. What can the criminals tell us now about the state of our cities? The crooks know that the streets and alleys are being returned to them and that the police are in retreat. That is unmistakably the case as crime, particularly violent crime, is exploding all over urban America. I was deputy attorney general the last time we suffered a crime wave of national proportions and had to learn the why of it in order to help lead the response that started the trend going the other way. It is mind-boggling to me to see how we are being condemned to repeat the exercise — at the cost of many innocent lives, the vast majority of them being black lives.

The blame for this turnabout is not with the police. Rather it is squarely on the shoulders of elected and appointed officials in local and state government who have abdicated the first responsibility of the offices they hold — to maintain public order so as to assure their citizens that their most fundamental civil rights will be preserved. Abdication is not a form of neglect, nor is it the result of ignorance, and it is not even a function of just wrongheaded policy choices. Rather, it is the intentional adoption of legislation, directives, and orders that have the effect of crippling the police function and thereby condemning to death, at the hands of criminals, minority citizens of inner-city and gang-infested neighborhoods. This week the Washington Post reported of the July Fourth weekend that “tragedies struck in urban centers thousands of miles apart, with 65 people shot over the weekend in New York and 87 in Chicago, and homicides climbing from Miami to Milwaukee.”

The case can be made that this intentional abandonment of the commitment to public safety is genocide because its victims are foreseeably overwhelmingly black and Latino. If this phenomenon were occurring in the white suburbs, we would see a police presence that no one could believe possible. That would be, of course, except in those jurisdictions where the populace has foolishly accepted prosecutors who have bought into “reimagining” the prosecution function as some fairytale undertaking where every crook gets released right back onto the street and accorded second, third, and fourth opportunities to go out and find new victims.

There is no need to study and debate the reasons for the current crime wave, which will grow exponentially as it is left unchecked. The studies have already been done; the experience is on the books. Ridiculously stupid explanations, such as that from Mayor Bill de Blasio and others that COVID is to blame, are an insult to the intelligence of even the least informed. What is even more astounding than the expectation that such drivel would be swallowed by the public is the questions it raises: “Okay, whatever the reason, people of color and their children are dying in alarming numbers — what are you doing about it?” Many state and local officials would have to answer: Nothing. De Blasio — if truthful — would have to say that he has dismantled the only police functions in the City of New York that have worked in the past to combat such violence. Mayor Jenny Durkan in Seattle, a former prosecutor who should know better, literally surrendered part of her city to a mob and likewise owes those victimized by that cowardice more than an apology.

Why do the criminals who are now reclaiming ownership of the streets know that they can get away with all this escalated criminal activity? There are several reasons. Any police officer or prosecutor who has had responsibility in the criminal-justice system for street crime (and I was one) learns a hard truth early: A very small percentage of all violent offenders commit a disproportionate share of all violent crimes. One sees it immediately when they come to court with rap sheets replete with prior arrests over a substantial period of time, often for crimes escalating in their seriousness. The system reinforces the notion that crime pays and you can get away with it by starting with light consequences that escalate only as the perpetrator keeps at it. In the worst cases, the bad conduct causes more injury as it progresses, such as from assault and mayhem to murder. That characteristic of the criminal-justice system has now been enhanced exponentially by policies and practices that include no pretrial detention of offenders even with a demonstrated propensity to commit more crimes, and police under siege being directed to refrain from, discouraged from, or just naturally pulling back from aggressive enforcement. The facts of these developments get short shrift from a media tribe that would rather air protest footage with the loudest voices calling for defunding the police. That erroneous and incomplete focus helps foster public indifference to the unconscionable slaughter and mayhem being visited on vulnerable urban communities.

At the height of the crime wave of the 1980s and ’90s, we learned the hard way that one of most difficult parts of the solution is identifying and isolating that ultra-violent minority of criminals disproportionately responsible for a large measure of all violent crime. The truth, not necessarily a popular narrative today, is that there is a subset of criminals who, if not neutralized in their ability to commit crime, will commit offenses over and over, time and again. Studies of real recidivism have proved the point. But that commonsense approach is now under assault by, and an anathema to, those who insist on using data about drug sentencing to claim that all long-term incarceration is a mistake. Perhaps someone will figure out a way to neutralize chronic violent offenders without incarceration, but until they do the choice is simply to either put the repeat violent offender away or leave him on the street to make more victims. The crime bill and the federal policies that former vice president Joe Biden now distances himself from, but that he once wisely supported, were based on some solid criteria by which this subset of criminals self-identified through conduct and therefore could be singled out for lengthy prison terms.

But there is at work an even more pernicious force that undergirds the conditions that are producing the explosion in the shootings of men, women, and, yes, even children in our urban cores today. That force — and it is one to be reckoned with — is the work of those who are exploiting some unjustified use of force by police to condemn all the police. Even more pernicious, the political cowardice of federal, state, and local officials who decline to call them out on the facially illogical and counterintuitive demand that, in the face of an explosion of crime, it is sound public policy to diminish the police function. That many of the people advocating dismantling the police function behave like a mob should come as no surprise. The truth is that those calling for canceling the police are simply people bent on the destruction of one of the pillars of our culture: adherence to the rule of law.

That is not to say that we do not have, in aspects of our society, systemic racism that has drawn legitimate protest and that demands change. Nor can we ignore that use of force by police not only carries the potential for abuse but has become a lightning rod for legitimate criticism by those who care deeply and rightly about the commitment we as a society have made to racial equality and the maintenance of civil rights for all of our people. But missing too often from even that discussion is the fact that police officers, even if just for their own protection, are far more often peacemakers than protagonists where confronted with potential violence.

So what to do? First, those who know we need cops to protect those most threatened by this explosion in urban violence need to step up and say so. Those are our elected and appointed officials, as well as the leadership in the law-enforcement community. Attorney General William Barr is among those leading the way, just this week both recognizing the need for change in relations between police and minorities and strongly backing more, not less, investment in further modernizing the police function. Chiefs of police, sheriffs, etc. need to speak up as well — and loudly. Next, responsible individuals who do or can represent the minority communities being victimized by this mayhem also need to call out those who are failing in the responsibilities of public office to afford these citizens their rights to live in peace. And responsible people need to run against those failing officials in coming elections, pledging to make public safety a priority.

Finally, the Trump administration needs to continue marshaling federal resources to help dedicated state and local police leaders stem this tide of violence before it becomes an overwash that floods some of the most vulnerable populations among us. That means having the U.S. attorneys and the FBI, the ATF, and other federal agencies make federal prosecution of violent offenders, particularly gun offenders, an absolute priority. State and local authorities can use available data to identify to their federal counterparts those offenders with the greatest propensity to be repeat violent offenders. It was done 30 years ago as part of a stopgap measure to arrest an alarming trend of urban violence, and it needs to be done again. Yes, the issue of law and order probably strikes an unpopular political note with the media and does not resonate in suburban salons; but order through law is an absolute responsibility of all public officials at all levels of government. Commitment to meet that responsibility is owed to urban minorities suffering so badly under the cowardly political pandering of too many to an agenda that would sacrifice black lives to advance anti-rule-of-law objectives.

George J. Terwilliger III is a lawyer in Washington who previously served for 15 years in the U.S. Justice Department, including as deputy attorney general and acting attorney general.

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