A central tenet of the current mass hysteria against policing holds that majority-white police departments are prima facie abusive in minority communities. The riots in Ferguson, Mo., were inspired, we were told, by years of mistreatment from a predominantly white police department that by definition could not police fairly in the majority-black town. Black officers, by implication, would be less prone to, if not altogether immune from, such abuses.
This piece of received wisdom does not fit well with the facts. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York just announced that he was joining a lawsuit against New York City for its mistreatment of inmates at the Rikers Island jail complex. Rikers Island is the second largest jail system in the country, after Los Angeles, and it has been dogged for years by allegations that its correctional officers brutalize inmates. Four months ago, the U.S. attorney, Preet Bharara, published a report denouncing what he called a pervasive and “deep-seated culture of violence” directed at teenage inmates at Rikers.
The correctional officers on Rikers are over two-thirds black; the command staff is predominantly minority as well — this in a city that is only 23 percent black. If the allegations against the guards are true, this would seem to be another instance of black-on-black violence. The Detroit police force is also two-thirds black; it recently came out from under a decade-long federal consent decree for civil-rights violations. The New Orleans police force is majority black; it, too, has been investigated by the federal government for brutality and misuse of force. Race, it would seem, is not a surefire predictor of police behavior.