Imagine a world in which the President of the United States has declared war on the nation’s police officers. As a result, the police stop engaging in activities that reduce crime, and violent crime rates increase, making everyone less safe. That is the world portrayed in Heather Mac Donald’s The War on Cops. It bears only a slight resemblance to the world you and I live in.
Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank in New York. She was a highly vocal critic of the Obama Administration’s efforts to spur reforms in policing policies and practices on the use of lethal force against citizens. She is a strong advocate of controversial law enforcement practices like “broken windows” policing, which is supposed to reduce serious crime by strictly policing minor offenses, and “stop and frisk,” which at its peak in New York City resulted in nearly 700,000 police stops of civilians for questioning and sometimes pat-downs and searches, until it was declared unconstitutional by a federal court. Mac Donald defends these practices against charges of over-policing and racial discrimination with three claims: First, however controversial they are among “liberal elites,” most residents of high-crime communities support such policing practices. Second, blacks are disproportionately ensnared in them, not because of discrimination but because blacks are responsible for most violent crime. Third, substantial crime reductions in New York City and elsewhere are directly attributable to robust policing of minor crimes and lots of street stops.
Both broken windows and stop and frisk played a role in the crime decline in New York City, but the evidence shows their contribution was relatively small and, of course, their effects on crime must be weighed against the constitutional and other issues they have raised. The Soviet Gulags reduced crime, but we would not want them here.
Good research evidence is available regarding each of these claims, but Mac Donald cites almost none of it (see “Further Reading” below). It is true that residents of high-crime minority communities support effective policing practices, but they also are highly critical of the police for engaging in what they regard as unfair and discriminatory treatment. Effectiveness and fairness both matter. It is also true that blacks are over-represented among the offenders (and the victims) of street crime, but most blacks—including young black men—are not criminals. The latter, not the former, is most germane to the debate over mass surveillance campaigns like New York City’s stop and frisk. Finally, crime rates have fallen dramatically in the United States, and other nations, for more than two decades. Both broken windows and stop and frisk played a role in the crime decline in New York City, but the evidence shows their contribution was relatively small and, of course, their effects on crime must be weighed against the constitutional and other issues they have raised. The Soviet Gulags reduced crime, but we would not want them here.
Engaging seriously with the evidence on these issues clearly was not part of Mac Donald’s purpose in writing this book. She chose instead to present a lawyer’s brief in defense of the police against charges of discriminatory treatment of minorities and over-policing of minor crime. Nowhere is her lawyerly approach to evidence more noteworthy than in her explanation for the U.S. homicide rise in 2015. Here again, she begins with a credible observation—homicide rates did rise precipitously in 2015—which she proceeds to use as Exhibit A in her case that the police have been unfairly maligned since a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. Mac Donald borrowed the term “Ferguson effect” from St. Louis police chief Sam Dotson, who believed some criminal offenders had become “emboldened” by the Ferguson incident. In her hands, however, the expression became synonymous with “de-policing,” the cessation of proactive policing practices such as vehicle and pedestrian stops and arrests for minor offending. Less policing, she contends, produced more crime. This is a plausible hypothesis, but is it true? Mac Donald’s proof that the police have backed off consists largely of anecdotes from conversations she has had with police officers. I have no idea how large or representative her sample of police acquaintances is, or whether their perceptions of police behavior are at all reliable. Reasonably systematic evidence of de-policing and its possible connection to recent crime increases exists for just two cities, Baltimore and Chicago. In both, rising crime rates coincided with reductions in arrests and other police enforcement activity. Whether similar patterns were present in other cities where homicide rates went up is unknown.
Even if de-policing turns out to be a significant cause of the uptick in homicide, it is unlikely to be the only cause. Mac Donald focuses solely on increased tension between the police and African Americans to explain the homicide rise. Yet, homicide increased among whites as well as blacks in 2015, apart from any evidence of growing antagonism between whites and the police. The homicide rise among whites calls for other explanations. A good candidate is the heroin and synthetic opioid epidemic that has gripped the nation for several years. In the past, expansions in illicit drug markets have produced increases in violent crime. Unlike the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s, however, the current opioid epidemic is centered in the white population.
Even a shallow historical perspective might have alerted Mac Donald to the far more hostile criticism of the police by the Black Panthers during the 1960s and 1970s, which to my knowledge did not cause the police to disengage. Compared to the Black Panthers, Black Lives Matter is a debating society.
Mac Donald does not direct attention to other plausible explanations of the homicide rise because they fit less easily in her narrative of a war on the police. She insists that attacks on the police by Black Lives Matter, President Obama and his Department of Justice—and her ever-present nemesis, the liberal elites—have made the police hesitant to fully engage in their crime-fighting mission, for fear of legal liability or having their identities revealed on social media. One would not have thought the police were so sensitive to criticism. Even a shallow historical perspective might have alerted Mac Donald to the far more hostile criticism of the police by the Black Panthers during the 1960s and 1970s, which to my knowledge did not cause the police to disengage. Compared to the Black Panthers, Black Lives Matter is a debating society.
Mac Donald has exaggerated the impact of policing on crime and, therefore, the influence of de-policing on the recent homicide rise. She neglects to consider alternative explanations for the crime increase. She underplays the real grievances of disadvantaged black communities with the police. All in the service of a paper thin narrative of a relentless attack on police by activists, liberals, and public officials, notably President Obama. The latter is especially troubling.
Need it be said that President Obama did not declare war on the police? He supported the nation’s police officers at every turn—after Ferguson, after police officers were killed in Dallas and Baton Rouge, after Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates was stopped by a police officer from entering his own home. (Obama invited Gates and the officer to the White House for a beer to talk it over.) President Obama did suggest that blacks and whites do not always receive the same treatment by the police, and he urged open and honest dialogue between minority communities and their local police departments. These are hardly calls for war. On the contrary, they are overtures for peace between the police and the communities they serve. Indications are that Mac Donald’s views will receive a favorable hearing in the current White House and Justice Department. We must hope that does not bring a halt to the policing reforms initiated by the previous administration intended to reduce the number of persons killed by the police and repair badly damaged police-community relations.