Magazine | July 30, 2012, Issue

The Crime Reporting You Never Read

If it doesn’t bash the police, it isn’t fit to print

A Cluster of articles in the New York Times this June inadvertently highlighted the paradoxes of race, crime, and policing in New York and virtually every other large American city.

On Thursday, June 14, the paper reported on the manslaughter arraignment of a New York police officer who fatally shot an 18-year-old in the Bronx this February in the mistaken belief that the victim, Ramarley Graham, had a gun. Outside the courthouse, protesters chanted “NYPD, KKK, how many kids did you kill today?” An article on the next page followed up on a fatal shooting, one that did not involve police, at a Harlem basketball court in June. The 25-year-old victim, Ackeem Green, turned out to have been a member of the Youth Marines, a private organization dedicated to teaching inner-city teens discipline and keeping them off the streets.

The twin half-brothers of Ramarley Graham, the police-shooting victim, were the subject of an article on June 13. Hodean and Kadean Graham were being prosecuted for gang conspiracy, gun possession, and, in the case of Hodean, attempted murder. In August 2009, Hodean shot into a crowd of rival gangbangers on the street but hit no one, according to the indictment. A third Graham brother has also been indicted on attempted-murder charges. That same day, Metro columnist Jim Dwyer wrote enthusiastically about a coming protest against the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk tactics, which seek to avert crime before it happens by encouraging officers in violent neighborhoods to questionand, when legal, to searchindividuals engaged in suspicious behavior. Dwyer clearly agreed with Al Sharpton, who told him: “If you’re born white in the city, you’re a citizen. If you’re born black or Latino, you’re a suspect.” Finally, an article nearby described a campaign spearheaded by an anti-stop-and-frisk coalition to slap yet another layer of bureaucratic oversight on the New York Police Department through a new civilian inspector general’s office.

These five articles over two days embody the elite narrative about law enforcement — as well as the only occasionally glimpsed facts that undercut it. The narrative, expounded most influentially by the Times, portrays police officers as the greatest threat facing minorities today. Minority criminals are out of sight, out of mind. The trial protesters’ “NYPD, how many kids did you kill?” chant is only a slightly cruder version of this conceit. Times editorialists, columnists, and reporters have been relentlessly pushing the idea that the New York Police Department oppresses minority males with its stop-and-frisk policy; the paper and other anti-cop activists have turned the shooting of Ramarley Graham into a symbol of the lethal consequences of such stops, even though Graham was not a stop-and-frisk subject.

As these stories and the surrounding issues play out, they will do so according to the following template:

First, while the trial of Officer Richard Haste, the cop who shot Ramarley Graham, will be accompanied by angry protest, no protesters will converge outside the trial of the person who killed Ackeem Green during a Sunday-afternoon basketball game, assuming the killer is found at all (as of mid-June, no witnesses had come forward to help the police). No one will chant “New York gangs, KKK, how many young men did you kill today?” in the defendant’s behalf. Al Sharpton will not show up demanding a conviction; to the contrary, the most prominent minority advocates will evince no interest in this garden-variety black-on-black murder. In the unlikely event that the New York Times covers the trial at all, it will not put the shooting in the context of other such homicides.

Second, the tactics of the officers in the Ramarley Graham shooting will be minutely dissected in the press and, more important, by the New York Police Department itself in its ongoing effort to further reduce the already minuscule rate at which officers shoot unarmed men. There will be no comparable scrutiny of the culture that spawned Ackeem Green’s killer or Ramarley Graham’s criminal brothers, who belonged to one of Central Harlem’s most ruthless gangs, the Goodfellas. (A jury convicted Hodean and Kadean Graham of conspiracy to possess guns in late June but acquitted them of the other charges; their attorney invoked Ramarley Graham in his opening statement, claiming that Ramarley’s death and the twins’ arrest represented an NYPD vendetta against the Graham family, before the judge sharply rebuked him.)

#page#Third, no commentator on Officer Haste’s trial will compare the number of people killed by the NYPD with the number killed by thugs. For the record, the “KKK” NYPD in 2011 killed eight people, all of them threatening the officers’ lives with guns and other lethal weapons, in the course of 900,000 arrests and summonses and 23 million contacts with the public. Civilians killed 515 people, 463 of them black or Hispanic. Virtually all of the 463 minority victims were felled by other blacks and Hispanics. Unlike those 463 killings, the eight lethal police shootings occurred because the officers involved were trying to protect the public. In the case of the Ramarley Graham shooting, Bronx residents had complained to the police about drug activity at a local bodega, which they rightly understood as posing an ongoing threat of violence. In response to the community’s demands, the department had put the store under surveillance. Two (black) undercover officers observed Graham leaving the bodega and reported over the police radio that he had a gun. Officer Haste and two other narcotics officers followed him home and forcibly entered his second-floor apartment. They found Graham flushing marijuana down the toilet. When Graham turned to Haste, Haste shot him. There are multiple grounds for questioning the tactical decisions that led tragically to the death of an unarmed man, but none whatsoever for thinking that those decisions, however faulty, were made with nefarious intent.

Fourth, as the campaign against the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy mounts, incidents like the basketball-court killing of Ackeem Green and the Graham brothers’ gang activities will be kept far offstage. The NYPD has taken 15 firearms, including semiautomatic pistols and rifles, from the Grahams’ Goodfellas gang alone, an arsenal the gang used to dominate the area around Harlem’s Lenox Avenue and 129th Street. It is in part to discourage thugs from carrying such weapons that the police stop and question people engaged in suspicious behavior. The cops’ critics complain that the 680,000 police stops in 2011 netted “only” 780 guns (and another 7,000 or so knives) — supposedly proof that stops are not working. But the critics never say what the results of effective deterrence should look like, if not a much lower rate of illegal gun-carrying, which in New York has led to a huge drop in gun homicides over the last two decades. Members of some street crews have taken to stashing a “community gun” in a public location rather than risking getting stopped while carrying a firearm, according to suspects debriefed by the police. The Goodfellas stored their weapons beneath mailboxes and on rooftops; Harlem’s 137th Street Crew paid girls to carry their guns for them.

Ideally, of course, a criminal would forswear firepower entirely, but the second-best solution is to induce him to keep his gun off his person, thus lessening the risk that a perceived slight will trigger a spur-of-the-moment shooting. Take off the pressure not to pack heat, and gun-carrying will ineluctably rise again. And if the cops do back away from proactive policing, they will be blamed for the rise in crime. In May 2010, an alumni party for a Queens middle school erupted in gunfire that killed one person and wounded six others. The aunt of the 20-year-old dead man complained to the New York Times that the police should have broken up the party earlier: “There should be more protection. You have a party that’s going on until 2 or 3 in the morning. Why wasn’t it stopped before?”

Contrary to Times editorialists, just because a stop did not net a gun or result in an arrest or summons does not mean that it was unconstitutional, or that the person stopped was not engaged in or preparing for a crime. (About 12 percent of stops result in arrests or summonses.) The behavior of someone who is casing a victim or burglary location may lawfully trigger a stop without his having evidence on his person to justify an arrest. Nevertheless, that stop may well deter a crime by signaling to its would-be perpetrator that he is being watched.

NYPD-bashers endlessly cite the racial demographics of stops as proof that the department is racist, but the Green murder and the Grahams’ gang terrorism demonstrate why the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk activity is concentrated in certain neighborhoods. Blacks constituted 53 percent of stop subjects in 2011, though they are only 23 percent of the city’s population. Whites constituted 9 percent of stop subjects in 2011, though they are 35 percent of the city’s population. But those stop rates reflect the incidence of crime. If residents of SoHo had to worry about getting shot during a Sunday-afternoon basketball game, NYPD officers would be heavily deployed in that Mecca of fabulousness as well, looking for gang activity.

#page#On Monday, June 18, the New York Times gave banner coverage to the anti-stop-and-frisk march that columnist Jim Dwyer had so eagerly anticipated. It said not a word about the bloodbath in the late-night and early-morning hours leading up to the march, in which ten people in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens were shot, three fatally. Brownsville, Brooklyn, was a particularly violent location during that pre-march period. As reported by the New York Daily News, at 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 16, a 25-year-old man in the neighborhood was shot multiple times and died in the hospital; at midnight, two other people were shot in the legs; and at about 3:10 a.m., a car sprayed gunfire at a nearby barbecue. The victims of the barbecue drive-by included a 37-year-old woman who was shot in the torso and underwent surgery at a local hospital, as well as a 27-year-old man who was shot in the leg and a 31-year-old man who was shot in the wrist, both of whom were rushed to the same hospital. (Taxpayers, of course, subsidize the medical costs of such mayhem.)

Brownsville’s 73rd police precinct happens to be a favored target of the anti-stop-and-frisk lobby because its stop rate is relatively high. Could such mindless violence be the cause of that stop rate? Of course it is, but the anti-cop brigades will never admit it. In fact, the per capita shooting rate in mostly black Brownsville is a remarkable 81 times higher than that in largely white and Asian Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The difference in stop rates — 15 times higher in Brownsville than in Bay Ridge — is modest by comparison.

Such disparities in criminal victimization mean that the police cannot target their resources at the neighborhoods that most need protection without producing racially disparate stop and arrest rates. Blacks are not just the most frequent victims of crime in New York; they are also its most frequent perpetrators. They commit about 80 percent of all shootings in the city, 70 percent of all robberies, and 66 percent of all violent crime, according to victim and witness reports to the police. Whites commit barely over 1 percent of all shootings, fewer than 5 percent of all robberies, and about 5 percent of all violent crime. Add Hispanic to black shootings, and you account for 98 percent of all gun violence in New York. Virtually every time the police are looking for a shooting suspect or trying to interrupt a retaliatory shooting, in other words, they are in minority neighborhoods, following up on descriptions of black and Hispanic perpetrators. It is not the cops who are responsible for such manpower allocations, but the criminals themselves.

No police department in the country comes close to the NYPD’s record in lowering crime; the city’s crime drop since the early 1990s — nearly 80 percent — has been twice as deep and has lasted twice as long as the national crime drop that began during that same period, even as the department has sharply reduced its use of force. Only the NYPD’s proactive style of policing and its data-driven accountability system (known as Compstat), which is also under attack by the anti-cop crowd, explain the gap between New York’s crime decline and the national average, as Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, argues in his recent book, The City That Became Safe. The primary beneficiaries of New York’s policing revolution have been blacks and Hispanics. Thousands of minority lives have been saved that would have been snuffed out had New York City homicide rates remained at their early-1990s levels or even just tracked national trends. Thousands more residents of minority neighborhoods were liberated from the tyranny of fear. Stores and restaurants have returned to areas that the street drug trade had turned into commercial wastelands.

But though minorities have benefited most from New York’s unparalleled public-safety success, they still remain the primary victims and perpetrators of crime. And that is a fact that their purported representatives staunchly refuse to acknowledge. It is a lot more gratifying and mediagenic to rail against phantom police racism and to militate for a new multi-million-dollar government bureaucracy to oversee an already highly regulated and accountable agency than to confront the hard realities of urban violence. A federal judge, presiding over a lawsuit against the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policies, is itching to put the department under federal control. Don’t be surprised if the Holder Justice Department beats her to it and sends a flotilla of policing-clueless Washington attorneys to investigate the department in preparation for the eventual costly and crippling federal consent decree. But as long as the only connection in mainstream discourse between police activity and minority crime is an accidental proximity on the pages of a newspaper, such actions will be dangerously beside the point.

– Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author of Are Cops Racist?

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