Main Error Mesage Here
More detailed message would go here to provide context for the user and how to proceed
Main Error Mesage Here
More detailed message would go here to provide context for the user and how to proceed

City Journal

Close Nav

The Critics of Proactive Policing Are Wrong

eye on the news

The Critics of Proactive Policing Are Wrong

Public order creates a virtuous circle that enables neighborhoods to flourish. January 2, 2018

In the last week of 2017, it was announced that homicides in New York City were at a 60-year-low and that gun murders of officers nationally had dropped 33 percent, after rising 53 percent in 2016. Inveterate cop critics seized on the information to argue that there was no such thing as a war on cops, and that proactive policing was irrelevant to crime control, since pedestrian stops had dropped in New York City along with homicides. I responded in National Review Online that gentrification was likely now contributing to New York’s crime decline. Nationally, however, the rising civilian violence in 2015 and 2016 resulted from the prolonged rhetorical onslaught against the police since the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But now it is considered bigoted even to mention racial crime and victimization rates, or to suggest that demographic and economic change can affect a neighborhood’s crime picture.

Let’s look at the facts.

The fact that should concern us all, and that should be at the forefront of discussions of crime and policing, is that blacks die of homicide at six times the rate of whites and most Hispanics combined. That is a serious civil-rights issue, but to my knowledge, Black Lives Matter protesters have remained silent about it. Blacks disproportionately suffer from nonlethal violence as well. Last year in Chicago, 4,300 people were shot—one person every two hours. Those victims were overwhelmingly black. If one white Chicagoan had been shot every two hours, there would be a national uproar; it is unthinkable. But because the victims were black and not shot by the police, the national media are indifferent. (The Chicago police shot 25 people last year, most of them armed or dangerous, amounting to 0.6 percent of all shooting victims in the city.)

The shooting victims in Chicago in 2016 included 24 children under the age of 12, among them a three-year-old boy mowed down on Father’s Day 2016 who is now paralyzed for life, and a ten-year-old boy shot in August whose pancreas, intestines, kidney, and spleen were torn apart. None of the two dozen children were shot by the police. When white children are shot or killed, an outcry ensues—see Newtown, Connecticut. When black children are shot or killed, the country largely looks away—though cops do not—unless the assailant is an officer. This year’s child shooting victims in Chicago include a four-year-old boy shot on the West Side in July while standing next to his mother, who was fatally shot in the head; another four-year-old boy and his six-year-old sister, shot in July while getting snow cones on the West Side; a ten-year-old boy fatally shot in the back while riding in an SUV with this stepfather; and two girls, seven and 13, shot in June on an elementary school playground during a picnic. In February 2017, 11-year-old Takiya Holmes was fatally shot in the head in Chicago by a 19-year-old marijuana dealer, who was blasting away at rival marijuana dealers. While the world knows the name of Michael Brown, the public at large remains ignorant of these young victims because they do not fit the Black Lives Matter narrative. Black Lives Matter activists have held no rallies on their behalf.

Who is killing and shooting black crime victims? Overwhelmingly, not whites, not the police, but, tragically, other blacks. The high black homicide-victimization rate is a function of the black homicide-commission rate. Blacks commit homicide nationally at seven times the rate of whites and most Hispanics, combined. Black males between the ages of 14 and 17 commit homicide at 10 times the rate of white and most Hispanic males between the ages of 14 and 17. Officer-involved shootings are not responsible for the black homicide-victimization rate, either. In fact, a greater percentage of white and Hispanic homicide victims are killed by a police officer than black homicide victims: in 2015, 12 percent of all whites and Hispanics who died of homicide were killed by a cop, compared with 4 percent of black homicide victims who were killed by a cop. Nor is white violence responsible for the black victimization rate. Blacks commit most interracial violence. Between 2012 and 2015, there were 631,830 violent interracial victimizations, excluding homicide, between blacks and whites, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Blacks committed 85.5 percent of those violent victimizations, or 540,360 felonious assaults on whites, while whites committed 14.4 percent of those violent victimizations, or 91,470 felonious assaults on blacks.

These national disparities are repeated locally. In New York City, for example, blacks, 23 percent of the population, committed 71 percent of all gun violence in 2016; whites, who, at 34 percent of the population, are the city’s largest racial group, committed less than 2 percent of all shootings. These identifications are provided by the victims of, and witnesses to, those shootings, overwhelmingly minorities themselves. A black New Yorker is thus 50 times more likely to commit a shooting than a white New Yorker. In Chicago, blacks and whites are each a little under a third of the city’s population; blacks commit 80 percent of all shootings, whites, a little over 1 percent, making blacks in the Windy City 80 times more likely to commit a shooting than whites. In Oakland, blacks committed 83 percent of homicides, attempted homicides, robberies, assaults with firearms, and assaults with weapons other than firearms in 2013, even though they constitute only 28 percent of Oakland’s population. Whites were 1 percent of robbery suspects, 1 percent of firearm assault suspects, and an even lower percent of homicide suspects, even though they make up about 34 percent of the city’s population. In Pittsburgh, 82 percent of known homicide suspects were black in 2015, even though the Pittsburgh population is just 26 percent black. In St. Louis, nearly 100 percent of homicide suspects were black through December 22, 2017, though the population is 47 percent white and 47 percent black.

The vast majority of black residents—in high-crime areas and elsewhere—are law-abiding and hard-working; they deserve the same freedom from fear as residents of safer neighborhoods and they beg for more proactive police enforcement, as reporters from the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post both discovered when covering the aftermath of the Freddie Gray riots. But a disproportionate amount of all violent crime is committed by a small percentage of the black community. This taboo fact has enormous implications for understanding police activity, whether stops, summons, arrests, or use of force, since policing will be more intense where people are most being victimized and are most calling for help in maintaining public order. The national discourse about policing over the last two decades has been conducted in a vacuum, where any mention of racial crime rates is banned as racist, even as the discussion of policing is carried out exclusively in racialized terms.

In 1994, a policing revolution began in New York City that would eventually save thousands of minority lives nationwide. The radical idea behind that revolution was that policing could actually prevent crime, not just respond to it after the fact. For years, the FBI’s annual crime tabulation, the Uniform Crime Report, contained a disclaimer that homicide was a social problem unamenable to a law enforcement solution; the policing establishment accepted this view of its own marginality. When William Bratton took over the NYPD in 1994, however, he explicitly rejected that passivity and declared that the NYPD itself would lower violence and disorder in New York. Backing up his words, he set a numerical target for crime reduction in his first year, something few police chiefs would have dreamed of doing before then. Bratton not only met his target of 10 percent, he beat it. He did so by establishing the principle of commander accountability for crime, by relentlessly collecting and analyzing crime data, and by asking officers to respond proactively to observed suspicious or disorderly behavior, if only by asking a few questions.

This data-driven “Compstat” revolution spread across the country and resulted over the next 20 years in a 50 percent nationwide felony crime drop. Minorities were the primary beneficiaries of that crime decline.  Starting in late 2014, though, violent crime started rising in urban neighborhoods across the country. From 2015 to 2017, the nation’s homicide rate rose 20 percent; the homicide increase in 2015 was the largest in nearly half a century. The victims of that homicide increase were predominantly black. An additional 900 black males were killed each year in 2015 and 2016 compared with 2014’s numbers, bringing the black homicide total in 2016 to 7,881. Those 7,881 black bodies, in the parlance of Ta-Nehesi Coates, were 1,305 more homicide victims than all white and Hispanic homicide victims combined, even though blacks are only 13 percent of the nation’s population—and black males, who are the vast majority of black homicide victims, are only 6 percent of the nation’s population.

The reason for this rise in violent victimization was depolicing. Officers were being told relentlessly by the mainstream media, President Barack Obama, Black Lives Matter activists, and academics that proactive policing—whether pedestrian stops or public-order enforcement—was racist. So it was no surprise that cops started doing less of it. Seventy-two percent of the nation’s officers reported that they and their colleagues were less willing to stop and question suspicious persons, according to a Pew poll released in January 2017, thanks to the persistent anti-cop climate. The only surprising thing was that the same anti-cop activists who had virulently denounced pedestrian stops and broken-windows policing as racist started accusing the cops of not doing their jobs, when officers backed off of these discretionary activities.

Former FBI Director James Comey repeatedly sounded the alarm about the rising urban bloodshed and publicly confirmed what I have called the “Ferguson Effect”—the combined phenomenon of depolicing and the resulting emboldening of criminals. The last two decades’ progress against crime was at risk, Comey observed at the Chicago Law School in October 2015, because officers were reluctant to get out of their cars and do the proactive work that prevents drive-by shootings. They were answering 911 calls, but avoiding the informal contact that deters bad guys with guns, he said. Comey recounted a conversation with officers in a big-city precinct who described being surrounded and taunted the minute they got out of their cars. Because of officers’ growing hesitation about engaging with potential suspects, cities across the country were seeing an explosion in senseless violence, Comey said. There was a “chill wind blowing through American law enforcement” that was “surely changing behavior.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel also confirmed the Ferguson effect in October 2015, during an emergency meeting of mayors and police chiefs convened by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to discuss the rising violence. “We have allowed our police departments to get fetal,” Emanuel said.

What Comey and Emanuel were hearing from cops about the atmosphere on the streets matched my own reporting. A black U.S. Marshall described to me being immediately surrounded by two dozen hostile bystanders taunting him as he tried to arrest a violent felon absconder. He had to call for backup to get safely away from the scene. A Chicago cop told me that he had never encountered so much hatred in his 19 years on the job: “People want to fight you. ‘F--- the police. We don’t have to listen,’ they say.”

The war on cops has consisted of an endlessly repeated narrative, amplified in the White House and across the mainstream media, that the nation’s officers were infected by lethal bias and that we were living through an epidemic of racist police shootings of blacks. That narrative was false. Policing today is data-driven; it is determined by the incidence of criminal victimization, not by race. Four studies came out in 2016 that found no racial bias against blacks in police shootings. Blacks have made up about a quarter of all victims of fatal police shootings in 2015 and 2016, according to the Washington Post’s database of fatal police shootings. That proportion does not suggest bias. Police use of force is most likely in confrontations with violent and resisting criminals—and those confrontations happen disproportionately in minority communities. In America’s 75 largest counties in 2009, blacks constituted 62 percent of all robbery defendants, 57 percent of all murder defendants, and 45 percent of all assault defendants, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, even though blacks made up only 15 percent of the population in those counties. The roughly 25 percent share of black police shooting victims nationally should be benchmarked against those violent crime rates, not against population share.

Yet so insistent was President Obama about reinforcing the false narrative about lethally biased policing that he even repeated it during the memorial service for five Dallas police officers assassinated in July 2016 by a killer inspired by Black Lives Matter ideology. Black parents were right to fear that a cop could shoot their child merely for doing something stupid, Obama said, as the families of the assassinated officers grieved their loss. This false narrative had tragic, real-world effects in the heightened loss of black life and neighborhood safety.

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson addressed the effect of anti-cop narratives on crime last week. The video of a Chicago cop killing Laquan McDonald and the resulting coverage emboldened criminals to break the law, he told the Chicago Tribune. “I think that they used that to their advantage because if you think they don’t pay attention to that type of thing, you’re fooling yourself because they do,” Johnson said. “I think the boldness of them is starting to tick down a bit, but it’s still there.” Deniers of the Ferguson Effect apparently think that they know more about criminal behavior than Superintendent Johnson does.

Cop critics have seized on the fact that gun murders of officers have dropped 33 percent this year to claim that the war on cops is chimerical. “There Still Wasn’t a War On Cops in 2017,” tweeted Reason. Their argument is specious. The war on cops has been overwhelmingly rhetorical. The hatred spewed toward cops on the street at the height of Black Lives Matter agitation, the endlessly repeated media conceit that policing was racist, were realities, with tragic consequences for crime victims. But even if the war on cops were viewed exclusively as a physical one, this year’s decline in murders of police officers cannot be used to dismiss that war without counting last year’s 53 percent increase in cop killings as a confirmation of it. (It is too soon to know what is behind this year’s decline, but one explanation is the near disappearance of the “homicidal racist cops” narrative from the national spotlight, as the media focused almost exclusively on the "Resistance" to President Trump. Officer disengagement on the streets is another possible explanation.) And if the murder rate of officers is used to dismiss the war on cops, then there is also no police war on unarmed black men. In 2015, a police officer was 18.5 times more likely to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male was to be killed by a police officer. Black males have made up 42 percent of all cop-killers over the last decade.

The critics have also seized on the ongoing crime drop in New York City to argue that proactive policing is an unnecessary crime-fighting strategy and that depolicing has no consequences. The New York Police Department’s reported stop activity plummeted earlier in this decade as a result of a groundless trilogy of racial-profiling lawsuits against the department. Yet crime in New York ultimately continued its downward trajectory. Therefore, say the critics, proactive policing such as pedestrian stops is unnecessary.

At first blush, New York’s recent crime experience appears to be a counterexample to the national pattern that shows a relationship between depolicing and crime. New York’s ongoing crime decline is cause for celebration and acclaim. It is also almost sui generis. That New York managed to hold on to its lowered crime levels during the last three years while so many cities did not hardly erases what was happening in those other cities; the 1,800 additional lost black lives speak for themselves. After the riots in Baltimore in April 2016, for example, the Baltimore police virtually stopped enforcing drug laws and other low-level offenses. Shootings spiked, along with loitering and other street disorder. “We know for a fact that around the time Freddie Gray was killed, we started to see homicides increase,” a Baltimore pastor recently told NPR.  “We had five homicides in that neighborhood while we were protesting.”  A similar pattern was shown in Chicago, St. Louis, and other cities with high degrees of publicly expressed anti-cop animus.

For most of the last two decades, New York’s crime decline was accomplished through data-driven, proactive policing.  No other department has had as uninterrupted and intense a focus on crime analysis and targeted policing.  The NYPD’s commitment to public-order enforcement (also known as Broken Windows policing) was, until recently, unshakable. Even after the drop in stops, the NYPD had the manpower to flood emerging shooting zones with officers whose mere presence deterred crime, as happened following a 20 percent homicide spike in the first half of 2015. The sustained enforcement of public-order laws may have effected a culture change in at-risk populations.        

But now another factor has come into play: the policing-generated transformation of formerly high-crime areas into middle-class neighborhoods. A virtuous cycle has set in, whereby lowered crime brings more commerce, more street traffic, and stable families, which in turn help lower crime. Gentrification has introduced informal social controls into neighborhoods that once had to rely almost exclusively on the police to maintain order. In off-the-record discussions, NYPD officials agree with this assessment.

It is not a novel observation. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported on the H Street corridor in Northeast Washington D.C., where “poverty, violence and trash-ridden streets . . . have given way to bars, restaurants, shops and condos [that have] led to further drops in crime.” Lowered crime in the early 2000s attracted new investment, which helped deter violence. That gentrification “has created a virtuous cycle that has allowed violence to decline in that part of the city,” John Roman, former executive director of the District of Columbia Crime Policy Institute, told the Journal.

The most important aspect of gentrification for crime control is the greater percentage of two-parent households among the gentrifiers. While many single mothers rear self-controlled, law-abiding offspring, children raised without fathers and in a community where marriage has almost disappeared are more likely to get sucked into gang life. It is the high rates of out-of-wedlock childrearing that explain the higher crime in inner-city areas. The relative incidence of out-of-wedlock childbirths, from Asians (low), through whites, Hispanics, and blacks (very high), tracks these groups’ relative standings in crime rates. If the same percentage of African-American children were raised by both parents as are Asian children, black and Asian crime rates would likely be close to indistinguishable.  If you want a stable neighborhood to raise your kids in, look to the number of married moms and dads, of whatever race. 

Diversity is fully compatible with public safety. Mott Haven, in the NYPD’s 40th precinct, has had a significant crime decline since the 1990s, though its white population has not increased significantly. It has a heavy police presence, and is gentrifying with first-generation immigrants and educated minorities, who are more likely to be married than was the existing population. These newcomers are disrupting the criminogenic environment of formerly high-crime neighborhoods.  Bourgeois African and Caribbean blacks are also stabilizing traditionally troubled areas in other parts of the Bronx, Harlem, and Brooklyn.

The reflexive charge of racism is an excuse to continue ignoring high crime and victimization rates in inner-city neighborhoods. The police, however, do not. While the rest of the country looks away from the drive-by shootings that take children’s lives, the police work overtime to try to solve them, even if witnesses are not cooperating. The story of New York and the rest of the country over the last quarter-century is that policing matters. That is the conclusion also reached by a recent National Academy of Sciences report that found that stop, question, and frisk and concentrated policing of criminal hot-spots reduced crime by statistically significant margins. When the police back off in high-crime areas deficient in social controls, however, lives are lost, as we have seen during the height of the Black Lives Matter era.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Up Next
eye on the news

Double Standards and Distortions

The media condemns President Trump for “normalizing hatred”—while it looks the other way on Islamist violence and black-nationalist hatred. Heather Mac Donald December 12, 2017 Public safety, Politics and law


Send a question or comment using the form below. This message may be routed through support staff.