Magazine | October 5, 2015, Issue

No War on Cops, No War on Blacks

We face instead a set of conventional, intractable systemic failures

U.S. police officers complain that they are under siege: In Las Vegas, four officers were shot in less than two months; Darren H. Goforth, a sheriff’s deputy, was gunned down at a gas station in Harris County, Texas, while pumping gas; Lieutenant Joe Gliniewicz — the Army veteran was “G. I. Joe” to his friends — was murdered in Fox Lake, Ill., after radioing in a report of three suspicious-looking men. At a press conference following the murder of Deputy Goforth, Harris County sheriff Ron Hickman linked the shooting to “dangerous national rhetoric.” “We’ve heard ‘black lives matter,’” he said. “Well, cops’ lives matter, too.” He called the killing “senseless” and an act of “absolute madness.”

About the madness, he very well may be correct: It will come as no surprise to those familiar with the facts of American murder that the suspect in the killing, Shannon J. Miles, had a history of violent crime, including violent crimes involving firearms, or that he had been declared mentally incompetent to stand trial on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in 2012 after a fight over the television remote control at an Austin homeless shelter. The great majority of the identified murderers in the United States — more than 90 percent in one survey, undertaken by the New York Times, of New York City crime — have prior criminal records. The link between violent crime and mental illness is well documented; a 2014 report commissioned by Representative Tim Murphy (R., Pa.), who is a psychologist by training, estimates that 40 percent of Americans with serious mental illness receive no treatment, and that those who do not receive treatment are 15 times more likely to commit violent crimes. Often these are the ordinary crimes that do not make the front pages, but sometimes they are criminal spectaculars: Mental illness was a factor in the carnage in Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Colo., Tucson, Ariz. (where Representative Gabby Giffords was shot), the Washington Navy Yard, and the 2014 shootings at Fort Hood, Texas (not to be confused with the 2009 act of “workplace violence” at the same facility by jihadist Nidal Malik Hasan, whose military portfolio was mental health). We have dangerous criminals walking the streets for the same reason that we have people with serious mental illnesses walking the streets: because we, through our policymakers, choose for this to be so.

Whether there is anything to Sheriff Hickman’s supposition that violence against police officers is attributable to the rhetoric associated with Black Lives Matter and the broader protest movement that grew up after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., is unclear. Those who are less inclined to sympathize with law-enforcement complaints in these matters note that overall police shootings are in fact lower this year, by about 15 percent, than they were last year. The leading cause of on-the-job death for police officers in 2015 is the same as it has been for all of recent history: automobile accidents. Most officers who die in shootings are not killed in ambushes by out-of-nowhere assassins; generally, they are killed in the sort of situation where police deaths, while horrific, are not unexpected.

So ambush murders of the kind that claimed the life of Deputy Goforth are not, strictly speaking, a statistically large problem. But if frequency is to be our sorting metric, then we will have to have a very different conversation about firearms and violent crimes: Mass shootings on the Newtown model constitute a vanishingly small share of U.S. homicides; all deaths involving rifles (never mind those super-scary “assault rifles” we hear about in the news) account for about 3 percent of homicides, according to FBI data. In fact, the shooting of Las Vegas Metro police officer Jeremy Robertson — also an ambush, but, thankfully, non-fatal — is remarkable because the news reports trumpeting the use of “an AK-47 assault rifle” in the crime were, for a change, almost correct: The bullet that struck Officer Robertson in the thigh came from an SKS semiautomatic carbine, a civilian variant of the notorious fully automatic Avtomat Kalashnikova, which was standard issue to Warsaw Pact militaries. (It is a convention of American journalism that any scary-looking rifle is either an AK-47 or an AR-15 until reporters are informed otherwise, and they often require informing more than once.) Two men have been arrested and charged in that crime; Clark County sheriff Joe Lombardo is skeptical that anti-police rhetoric is a factor here, saying: “Is this a ‘war on cops’? I don’t believe so.”

Twenty-eight American police officers have died by shooting so far this year, though two of those deaths were training accidents. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 117 police officers were killed in the line of duty in 2014, the largest portion in car wrecks. By way of comparison, in 1974, there were 280 police officers killed on the job; in 1930, when the U.S. population was less than half of what it is today, more than 300 policemen died on duty. For most of the 1980s, the annual figure hovered around 200 deaths per year, and the decline since then is of a piece with the general decline in U.S. crime since Charles Bronson was dispensing rough Reagan-era cinematic justice in Death Wish 4: The Crackdown.

For the Left, there is a prominent movement afoot to criminalize politics: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Adam Weinstein, late of Gawker, have argued that Americans who have the wrong opinions on global warming should be prosecuted; Rick Perry remains under indictment in Texas for the purported crime of having vetoed a spending bill; the sorry saga of Tom DeLay, persecuted for years by the same office that is going after Perry until the case was scoffed out of court, is illustrative. But there also is a tendency to pseudocriminalize political disputes, and the Right is not entirely immune to this: While progressives gleefully deployed the Charleston church shooter’s fondness for Confederate iconography in an attempt to wrong-foot southern conservatives, some conservatives matched them in dishonor by gloating over the fact that the disgruntled and depraved former reporter who killed two Virginia television journalists during a live broadcast was a progressive who had been disciplined for wearing an Obama badge on camera. Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas made an (even bigger) ass of himself when he claimed that a man recently indicted in a terrorism case had been a Breitbart contributor; he hadn’t, though he had been a diarist at the Daily Kos. Elected Democrats tried very hard to blame Sarah Palin for the shooting of Representative Giffords, and we were treated to another one of those insufferable “national conversations,” this one on civility in political discourse, which lasted until it was time to call Republicans Nazis and slave masters again.

Much of the rhetoric associated with Black Lives Matter is deeply stupid, infantile, and distasteful. Only hours after the murder of Deputy Goforth, anti-police protesters at the Minnesota State Fair (where else?) were chanting “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon!” That will not soon be forgotten. Not by the police, to be sure, but not by the general public, either.

“It’s coming out like it did back in the 1960s [and ’70s], with the Black Liberation Army, Patty Hearst, and all that, when the police were daily targets across the country,” says Keith Bettinger, who served a full career as a patrol officer, crime-prevention specialist, and state trooper in Suffolk County, N.Y., on the eastern end of Long Island, and is now retired in Las Vegas. He points to the police-death rates of the 1960s and 1970s, and he fears that we could be headed back toward those numbers. “‘Pigs in a blanket, make them fry’ — that’s worse than in the Sixties,” he says. Perhaps, but those old wounds linger. He mentions the 1971 case of Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones, two NYPD patrolmen who were lured into a Harlem housing project and murdered by members of the Black Liberation Army. One of the killers, Herman Bell, came up for parole in 2014, and the hearings were very emotional affairs, with the victims’ families divided about releasing him after 35 years; Bell, who was convicted in 1979 but refused to confess to the crime until 2010, was denied parole. The Fraternal Order of Police blames the Black Liberation Army for at least 13 police murders.

We are not in the Sixties anymore, but the epithet “pigs” lives on, as does the hatred it expresses. While there may not be persuasive evidence linking anti-police rhetoric to any particular act of violence, Bettinger believes that the current protest movement is at the very least irresponsible. “They’re protesting things they don’t know anything about. In Ferguson, people were not interested in the truth of the matter. They were more interested in the looting and burning that followed. What happened in Ferguson was more like a shopping spree.”

The evidence suggests that he has the better part of the argument. The genesis of Black Lives Matter, the Michael Brown case, was poorly handled by the local officials in Ferguson: There isn’t much that Ferguson’s officials do not handle poorly, and the prior abuses of the Ferguson police department — the profit-oriented policing that led to such actions as issuing a half dozen failure-to-appear warrants, with associated fines, to a homeless woman — probably made it easier to believe the worst. But every serious investigation into the Brown matter, including the one conducted by Barack Obama’s Justice Department, failed to find any wrongdoing by Officer Darren Wilson, much less the cold-blooded execution of the innocent young black man (who had just assaulted a convenience-store clerk in the course of robbing the place) of “hands up, don’t shoot” lore. There are, of course, bad police officers, and bad police shootings. But just as ambush attacks on unsuspecting law-enforcement officers loom much larger in the imagination than in reality, so, too, do episodes of unjustified force perpetrated by police.

In Harris County, Texas, some 11,000 people attended Deputy Goforth’s funeral, including police officers from across the country. The outpouring of grief was remarkable. Elsewhere, shootings have produced practical measures: In Las Vegas, police have been assigned to two-man cruiser teams rather than sent out alone. Similarly, episodes of excessive police force (documented or suspected) have resulted in a new push for police body cameras and other surveillance measures intended to reduce reliance upon guesswork and unsupported testimony in evaluating police shootings.

All of this speaks to a serious challenge in American self-government: the inability of civic culture in decline to engage in the task, necessary in a democratic republic, of sober evaluation. That requires many old-fashioned civic virtues on the brink of extinction, prudence and public honesty leading the list. Police departments, like any other government agency, certainly should be subject to the maximum feasible amount of monitoring and oversight. Does anybody think that the Black Lives Matter crowd is equipped to provide that? Does anybody believe that the authorities in Ferguson — or in New York City — are honest? In the Ferguson case, witnesses were caught lying left and right: “Witness 35,” from whom investigators heard that Officer Wilson shot Brown in the head at point-blank range while Brown was on his knees, admitted to making up his testimony; “Witness 40,” who told a story more amenable to the police, turned out not to have been there, to have gathered her knowledge of the scene from news reports, and to have opined on Facebook on the day of Brown’s murder that “they need to kill f***ing n*****s. It is like an ape fest.” We have seen deeply entrenched criminality in the NYPD and the LAPD over the years, and in dozens of smaller jurisdictions, too; and on the other side, we have despicable, lying opportunists such as the Reverend Al Sharpton.

The reality is that there is no open season on young black men (relative to their rate of involvement in violent crime, they are shot by police less frequently than white men are), and there is no Ferguson-inspired war on police — at least, there is no convincing evidence that either thing exists. What we have is a much less politically sexy and much more intractable problem: massive nationwide institutional failures. In the sphere of government, it’s the failure to sufficiently monitor violent criminals already known to authorities and to organize treatment for those with dangerous mental illnesses. In the political sphere, it’s the failure to develop a responsible critique and understanding of excessive police force, along with related issues such as police militarization and police corruption. Instead, we’re having a national pageant of finger-pointing over unusual and unrepresentative cases.

In the case of Black Lives Matter vs. the police, there has been a great deal of guilt-by-association. But there is plenty of ordinary guilt to go around.

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