Will the anti-cop Left please figure out what it wants? For more than a decade, activists have demanded the end of proactive policing, claiming that it was racist. Pedestrian stops—otherwise known as stop, question, and frisk—were attacked as a bigoted oppression of minority communities. In March 2015, for example, the ACLU of Illinois accused the Chicago Police Department of “targeting” minorities because stops are “disproportionately concentrated in the black community.”
Equally vilified was Broken Windows policing, which responds to low-level offenses such as graffiti, disorderly conduct, and turnstile jumping. Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King launched a petition after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, demanding that Attorney General Eric Holder “meet with local black and brown youth across the country who are dealing with ‘Zero Tolerance’ and ‘Broken Windows’ policing.”
Well, the police got the message. In response to the incessant accusations of racism and the heightened hostility in the streets that has followed the Michael Brown shooting, officers have pulled back from making investigatory stops and enforcing low-level offenses in many urban areas. As a result, violent crime in cities with large black populations has shot up—homicides in the largest 50 cities rose nearly 17 percent in 2015. And the Left is once again denouncing the police—this time for not doing enough policing. King now accuses police in Chicago of not “doing their job,” as a result of which “people are dying.” Stops in Chicago are down nearly 90 percent this year through the end of March, compared with the same period in 2015; shootings were up 78 percent and homicides up 62 percent through April 10. Over 100 people were shot in the first ten days of 2016. King scoffs at the suggestion that a new 70-question street-stop form imposed on the CPD by the ACLU is partly responsible for the drop-off in engagement. If American police “refuse to do their jobs [i.e., make stops] when more paperwork is required,” he retorts, “it’s symptomatic of an entirely broken system in need of an overhaul.” This is the same King who as recently as October fumed that “nothing happening in this country appears to be slowing [the police] down.”
Let’s examine the dilemma imposed on cops by activists like King. On March 25, two groups of youths were fighting on a street corner on Chicago’s West Side. If Chicago officers had dispersed them and questioned anyone who seemed to be harboring a gun, a Black Lives Matter sympathizer would have seen only racial harassment. The ACLU would have logged any documented stops into its stop database in preparation for its next racial profiling lawsuit; the Justice Department, which is now investigating the Chicago Police Department for racism, would have also tallied the stops as evidence of bias. But the police did not move in on March 25, and one of the teens started shooting at his rivals. The gunslinger hit 13-year-old Zarriel Trotter, an innocent bystander; the bullet entered Trotter’s back near his spine and punctured his intestines. As of early April, the police were still searching for the shooter. “It gets scarier out here every day,” a classmate of Zarriel’s told the Chicago Tribune. “Young people in Chicago can’t go outside without knowing whether they will be the next person fired at.”
The Shaun King who petitioned Eric Holder to end Broken Windows policing might argue that officers should overlook such outbreaks of disorder in minority neighborhoods, but many of their law-abiding residents desperately want the cops to intervene. Last summer, I attended a police-community meeting in the 41st Precinct of the South Bronx; residents complained to their precinct commander about large groups of youths hanging out on corners, a plea made time and again in similar police-community meetings. “There’s too much fighting,” one woman said. “There was more than 100 kids the other day; they beat on a girl about 14 years old.” Another man asked: “Why are they hanging out in crowds on the corners? No one does anything about it. Can’t you arrest them for loitering?” A middle-aged man wondered: “Do truant officers exist anymore?” If cops ignore such heartfelt requests for public order because the activists tell them that it would be oppressive to respond, they will betray the very people who need them the most.
In April, another outbreak of street disorder in Coney Island, Brooklyn, resulted in the death of a 17-year-old girl. Ta’Jae Warner had tried to protect her brother from a group of girls gathered outside her apartment building who were threatening to kill him; one of the girls knocked Warner unconscious. Warner died four days later after being taken off life support. “We are killing each other, this is not normal,” a community activist said at the scene of the assault, later posting on Facebook: “A 17-year-old girl was attacked by people who looked just like her. Black Lives Matter.” If parents and other authority figures are unable to control such violence, it will fall to the police to do so.
King and other activists might answer that the cops should just concentrate on making an arrest after a shooting has already occured. That reactive style of policing dominated law enforcement until the early 1990s, when the New York Police Department embraced data-driven, proactive policing. The NYPD’s revolutionary new philosophy held that the police could prevent felony crime by reducing low-level lawlessness and intervening in suspicious conduct; that philosophy spread nationwide and ushered in a record-breaking 20-year national crime drop, now at risk in urban areas.
Moreover, making post hoc arrests for shootings and homicides has gotten even harder in the wake of the incessant Black Lives Matter refrain that the cops are racist killers. Thanks to the no-snitching ethic, lack of witness and victim cooperation was already the biggest impediment to solving violent crime in the inner city; that uncooperativeness has worsened over the last year and a half. In November, Chicago gang members lured a nine-year-old boy into an alley and murdered him in retaliation against his gangbanger father. The father refused to help with the investigation. Black Lives Matter ideology has also chilled informal interactions that could lead to an arrest. “I feel like I can’t talk to anybody because someone might accuse me of violating their civil rights,” a South Side patrol officer told the Chicago Tribune in February.
Chicago had a harbinger of its current depolicing situation in 2012. Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy had disbanded a city-wide, anti-gang task force that advocates had criticized for allegedly making too many stops in minority neighborhoods. Homicides soared, ultimately reaching 500 that year. South Side residents begged for the reconstitution of the task force and the resumption of stops. “We have had enough,” the grandmother of a murder victim told the Telegraph, afraid to give her name for fear of retribution. “The older folks are terrified. We need the police to crack down on them. Responsibly yes, but forcefully.” A local city councilman, Willie Cochran, said that his constituents “wanted a more aggressive force engaging these terrorists on the streets.” His community was “ready to stand by the police” in the face of complaints about “racial profiling,” Cochran added. McCarthy reconstituted the unit in 2013 and the shooting epidemic cooled. (This connection between depolicing and crime has been repeatedly confirmed empirically, most recently in a study of Justice Department police consent decrees.)
The activists’ standard charge against cops in the post-Ferguson era is that they are peevishly refusing to do their jobs in childish protest against mere “public scrutiny.” This anodyne formulation whitewashes what has been going on in the streets as a result of the sometimes-violent agitation against them. Cops are routinely cursed and screamed at; sometimes bottles and rocks are thrown. “In my 19 years in law enforcement, I haven’t seen this kind of hatred toward the police,” a Chicago cop who works on the South Side tells me. “People want to fight you. ‘Fuck the police. We don’t have to listen,’ they say.” Resistance to arrest is up, cops across the country report, and officers are getting injured. Officers worry about becoming the latest racist cop-of-the-week on CNN if their use of force against a resisting suspect, however justified, goes viral.
That officers would reduce their engagement under such a tsunami of hatred is both understandable and inevitable. Policing is political. If the press, the political elites, and media-amplified advocates are relentlessly sending the message that proactive policing is bigoted, the cops will eventually do less of it. This is not unprofessional conduct; it is how policing legitimacy is calibrated. The only puzzle is why the activists are so surprised and angered that officers are backing off; such a retreat is precisely what they have been demanding.
The crime situation in Chicago is unlikely to turn around any time soon. The departments’ stop activity is now being monitored by the same Illinois ACLU that in March deemed the department’s stop rates discriminatory because they did not match Chicago’s population ratios. Blacks were 72 percent of all stop subjects in a four-month period in 2014, according to the ACLU, though blacks constitute only 32 percent of the city’s population. Last week, a Police Accountability Task Force appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel used the same population benchmark to declare that the department has no “regard for the sanctity” of black lives: blacks made up 74 percent of all police shooting victims, lethal and non-lethal, between 2008 and 2015, according to the Task Force; whites made up 8 percent of police shooting victims, though they, too, comprise roughly a third of Chicago’s population.
This flawed methodology for benchmarking police actions—comparing them to population ratios—ignores the incidence of crime. Between 1991 and 2011 (the latest years for which such data are publicly available) blacks made up between 82 percent and 70 percent of all murder offenders. Whites made up between 3.5 percent and 5 percent of all murder offenders. Shooting and robbery disparities are likely greater. Drive-by shootings are simply not happening in white neighborhoods. If police want to save lives (and they do), they are going to be more heavily deployed in minority areas. Once there, they will more frequently interact with violent criminals, armed suspects, and those resisting arrest—all situations which can lead to officer use of force. And the more resistance that an officer encounters, the more likely he is to escalate his own use of force, even to the point of gunfire.
The Police Accountability Task Force report did make a useful call for more tactical training of officers—though finding funding for such training will be difficult if the report’s gratuitous new police inspector-general position is also created. As the Task Force implies, there undoubtedly are Chicago police officers who drastically need an attitude tune-up in courtesy and respect; if they cannot shed their hardened, disrespectful demeanors, they shouldn’t be on patrol. But the report’s groundless denunciations of the department as “systemically racist,” coupled with the ACLU’s ignorant monitoring of the department’s stop activity, all but guarantee that officers will hesitate to engage with suspects. And as long as that hesitation continues, more black lives will be tragically lost.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images