In 1990, 2,245 people were murdered in New York City, the most ever. In Los Angeles, the high-water mark for homicide came in 1992, when 1,092 people were killed. In the years since, those grim numbers fell steadily in both cities, reflecting a national drop in violent crime. In 2014, New York saw 333 murders; in Los Angeles, the number was 260. In those two cities alone, thousands of people are alive today who would not be if not for the advances in policing methods that came into practice in the early 1990s. This is to say nothing of the thousands upon thousands of additional people who would have been robbed, assaulted, or otherwise victimized if crime rates had remained constant at their appalling early-1990s numbers. No writer has expended more energy in chronicling how those remarkable gains were achieved than Heather Mac Donald. And no writer is more dismayed at seeing those gains being undone.
In The War on Cops, Mac Donald examines the multi-front attack on the police and the justice system now being waged in a misguided campaign to lower incarceration rates and decriminalize socially destructive behavior. Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor at City Journal, examines each of these fronts: street-level demonstrations by Black Lives Matter activists; political efforts at the local, state, and federal levels; judicial mischief in the courts; dishonest use of data in the media and among academics; and even distortions and prevarications on crime from President Obama himself. It was President Obama, Mac Donald reminds us, who in addressing the NAACP in July 2015 propagated the destructive lie that the disproportionate number of minorities in prison could be attributed to bias in the criminal-justice system. “The bottom line,” said the president, “is that in too many places, black boys and black men, Latino boys and Latino men experience being treated differently under the law.” Actual evidence of this bias, says Mac Donald, is the holy grail among academics working in criminology. But, like the Holy Grail of the Middle Ages, such evidence has not been found.
I pause to note here that Mac Donald and I are friends. I cite her frequently in my own writing, and speaking on behalf of police officers everywhere, I am grateful for her having taken up the endeavor of defending America’s cops. She would seem an unlikely candidate for such a cause. A graduate of Phillips Academy and Yale, she studied at Cambridge University before earning a law degree at Stanford. She then clerked for Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguably the most liberal jurist in the country. This is hardly the curriculum vitae you would expect from one speaking so forcefully on behalf of police officers. But it was not ideology that brought her to this place; it was rather an intellectual rigor and a willingness to follow the evidence regardless of where it led or whom it offended.
And the evidence, Mac Donald tells us, is that America’s police officers have of late been slandered in a deliberate campaign of misinformation and dishonest interpretation of data, perhaps the most pernicious example of which is, as in President Obama’s remarks noted above, the assertion that blacks are unfairly targeted by racist police officers and unjustly funneled through the justice system by equally racist (or at least indifferent) prosecutors and judges. She cites a 1997 study by criminologists Robert Sampson and Janet Lauritsen, who reviewed “massive literature on charging and sentencing” and reached a conclusion that was surely discomfiting to those searching for a biased system. The researchers concluded that “large racial differences in criminal offending,” not racism, explained why more blacks were imprisoned proportionately than whites, and for longer terms. Study after study has confirmed these findings, says Mac Donald, yet “this consensus hasn’t made the slightest dent in the ongoing search for systemic racism.”
Similarly, says Mac Donald, the data on unarmed blacks shot by police have been distorted and put to dishonest use. The Black Lives Matter movement rose to prominence after the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and despite all evidence to the contrary, BLM activists continue to peddle the lie that Brown was shot without justification. Since the Brown incident, the Washington Post has been gathering data on police shootings with the apparent intent of advancing the notion that police shoot and kill unarmed blacks out of implicit bias. “In fact,” writes Mac Donald, “the Post’s findings confirm that the Black Lives Matter movement is a fraud.”
Such a charge cannot be made lightly, and indeed, rather than merely examining the Post’s raw numbers, Mac Donald digs into the actual cases to substantiate her assertion. Some of the “unarmed” blacks killed by police, she reports, had (like Michael Brown) tried to grab an officer’s gun. Others were using some piece of an officer’s equipment, such as a radio, to attack him. “And two individuals included in the Post’s ‘unarmed black victims’ category,” writes Mac Donald, “were struck by stray bullets aimed at someone else in justified cop shootings. If the victims were not the intended targets, then racism could have played no role in their deaths.”
Mac Donald also catches the Post engaged in a subterfuge common among current police critics: comparing the number of blacks killed by the police to their number in the population rather than their share of the criminal-offender pool. The Post reported that in 2015, 40 percent of the unarmed men killed by police gunfire were black, while black men make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population. Again, Mac Donald swats this away with facts. “A 2011 study of California and New York arrest data,” she writes,
led by Darrell Steffensmeier, a criminologist at Pennsylvania State University, found that blacks commit homicide at eleven times the rate of whites and robbery at twelve times the rate of whites. Such disparities are repeated in city-level data. In the 75 largest county jurisdictions in 2009, blacks were 62 percent of robbery defendants, 61 percent of weapons offenders, 57 percent of murder defendants, and 50 percent of forgery cases, even though blacks are less than 13 percent of the national population.
Equally troubling to Mac Donald is the role the courts have played in the war on the police. Coming in for singular scorn in the book is U.S. district judge Shira Scheindlin, whose rulings in three lawsuits against the New York Police Department have hobbled its efforts to combat violent crime, especially in the borough neighborhoods outside Manhattan, which are most often ignored by the city’s media but where crime is most acutely experienced. Mac Donald cites the NYPD’s 44th Precinct in the Bronx, where, since 1993, crime has dropped by 73 percent, owing largely to effective, data-driven policing. Judge Scheindlin enjoined the NYPD from employing some of the methods it used to achieve these gains, like aggressive enforcement against trespassers in apartment buildings and the stopping and questioning of people engaged in suspicious behavior. In researching The War on Cops, Mac Donald walked these neighborhoods and met with residents, many of whom expressed gratitude to the NYPD for making their streets safe. Such voices, says Mac Donald, were absent from the litigation over which Judge Scheindlin presided.
Citing another example of judicial overreach, Mac Donald reports on the byzantine scheming in the federal courts overseeing lawsuits against the state of California. Accused by plaintiffs of Eighth Amendment violations stemming from prison overcrowding and inadequate medical care, the California Department of Corrections was ordered to release up to 46,000 convicted felons. Worse, the state’s voluntary efforts to improve inmate medical care were held by the judges as admissions that the care was constitutionally deficient, thus warranting further judicial control.
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of The War on Cops is Mac Donald’s repeated and underscored emphasis on the dissolution of the black family and the contribution this development has made to crime. “The public discourse around policing,” she writes,
has focused exclusively on alleged police racism to the neglect of a more serious and pervasive problem: black crime. If a fraction of the public attention that has been devoted to flushing out supposed police bias had been devoted to stigmatizing criminals and revalorizing the two-parent family, the association between black communities and heavy police presence might have been broken.
Given my friendship with Mac Donald, I felt that a sense of fairness and an honest review demanded that I find some passage in The War on Cops where I might find disagreement. I searched but found none. The book is a powerful refutation of the anti-police narrative that is now so pervasive in the media, among politicians and academics, and, most important, on the streets of America. The “Ferguson effect” has taken hold among the nation’s police officers, and the great gains in crime control seen since the early ’90s face a very real threat. Railing against the police is very much in fashion today, but, as was proven recently in Dallas, this is a fashion that is being paid for in blood.
– “Jack Dunphy” is the pseudonym of a former officer in the Los Angeles Police Department.