Heather Mac Donald joins Brian Anderson to discuss the state of policing today, the “Ferguson Effect,” former FBI director James Comey’s defense of proactive policing, and the recent protests against conservative speakers on college campuses.
Since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014, public discussion about police and the criminal justice system has reached a fever pitch: activists claim that policing is inherently racist and discriminatory, while supporters say that public pressure has caused officers to disengage from proactive policing.
President Trump’s promise to restore “law and order” in American cities upset many progressives, but with violent crime on the rise in cities across the country since 2014, Trump was right to raise the issue.
Read Heather’s piece in the Spring 2017 issue of City Journal, “How Trump Can Help the Cops.”
Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She is a recipient of the 2005 Bradley Prize. Mac Donald’s work at City Journal has covered a range of topics including higher education, immigration, policing, homelessness and homeless advocacy, criminal-justice reform, and race relations. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, and The New Criterion. Mac Donald's newest book, The War on Cops (2016), warns that raced-based attacks on the criminal-justice system are eroding the authority of law and putting lives at risk.
Brian Anderson: Since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, there has been an ongoing public debate about the American criminal justice system. Critics including former President Barack Obama and his Justice Department, the activists of Black Lives Matter, and many in the elite press charge the policing is shot through with racism, specifically that young blacks, young black males in particular, are routinely being harassed, harmed, and even killed by the police with near impunity. And as a corollary that blacks are unjustly being imprisoned at rates disproportionate to their numbers. President Donald Trump’s promise to restore law and order in American cities was a centerpiece of his campaign last year and many of his opponents said he was exaggerating the safety problem in the inner city and thereby race-baiting and demonizing minorities. But with an undeniable increase in homicides in shootings in cities across the county since 2014, it seems that Trump was right to raise the issue. The antipolice narrative, our guest Heather Mac Donald has argued, has led officers in high-crime areas to start to disengage from proactive policing, leading to more violent crime. That phenomenon has come to be called the Ferguson effect, a term Heather popularized with a much-discussed Wall Street Journal editorial. We will talk with Heather about the state of policing, the facts about crime, James Comey, and her recent encounters with campus protestors that put her in national headlines.
Welcome back to 10 Blocks, I am your host Brian Anderson. Joining us on the show today is Heather Mac Donald. She is a longtime contributing editor of City Journal, the Thomas Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and author of the New York Times’s bestseller The War on Cops, which will be out in an updated paperback edition this fall. Her latest essay, How Trump Can Help the Cops, appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of City Journal. Heather, thanks for joining me.
Heather Mac Donald: Thanks for having me on, Brian.
Brian Anderson: It has been nearly two years since you popularized the phrase the Ferguson effect in a Wall Street Journal article entitled The New Nationwide Crime Wave. Now critics of police dismissed the idea at the time of any crime spike as an illusion, a statistical illusion. One that could give cover, in fact, to continuing police violence against minorities. Yet the numbers are showing that violent crime has undeniably increased in many cities over the past two years and a recent FBI report on the murder of police officers suggests that your argument on the Ferguson effect was a correct one. What is the state of the policing debate now that cities like Baltimore and Chicago and other locations are seeing, really, crime levels unseen for decades?
Heather Mac Donald: Well, Brian, unfortunately the activists and advocates and anticop enablers are maintaining their position, which is that the police are a racist, oppressive force in the community and they remain, with very few exceptions, in complete denial about the increasing loss of black lives. I, however, if I do say so myself, have been completely vindicated by the data that has come out since the release of The War on Cops. We finally have the final homicide numbers for 2015. It was the largest one-year increase in nearly fifty years. An additional 900 black males were killed in 2015, bringing the black homicide total up to 7,000. That is 2,000 more black homicide victims than all white and Hispanic homicide victims combined. What the recent FBI report showed is that not only are black lives being taken because officers are backing off from proactive policing under this relentless lie that they are racist for trying to bring public order to high-crime communities, but blue lives are being taken as well. There was a 53% increase in gun murders of police officers last year that the FBI analyzed and concluded it was driven overwhelmingly by an ideologically fomented hatred of cops.
Brian Anderson: The activists in a place like Baltimore are getting, in a way, what they wanted. They were saying that the police were an oppressive force, now the police have backed off and you see this horrific increase in violence in that city, and now city leaders are throwing their arms up and saying what is happening, how can this crime be prevented? What explains this kind of incoherence on the part of the people involved in this debate?
Heather Mac Donald: Well nobody really wants to admit that policing is the second best solution for bringing safety to urban areas. The first best solution is fathers. That is completely a taboo subject. But policing is almost as toxic to the Left. Baltimore is just an amazing situation. Homicide levels are now at the highest rate per capita in the city’s history, shootings are occurring daily, and yet, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked a federal judge for time to review a completely nonsensical, self-defeating consent decree that the Obama Justice Department slapped on the Baltimore Police Department in its last week in office, when Sessions said let me look at this thing to make sure that it is in the best interest of the law-abiding residents of West Baltimore, the police chief and mayor of Baltimore raised a hue and cry and said please do not free us from a grotesquely overpriced federal monitor from ten years or so spending tens of millions of dollars a year in unnecessary compliance costs. We have no capacity to run and govern our city ourselves. The twists and turns in the elite’s cop narrative are just impossible to follow and, oddly, the participants in that narrative even include some big city police chiefs.
Brian Anderson: How many of America’s big cities are under these kind of federal consent decrees? You have been very critical of them. Perhaps you can explain a little bit more how they work and what Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions plans to do about them.
Heather Mac Donald: Well, the Obama administration opened more investigations into police departments for alleged patterns of unconstitutional policing than any other previous administration. I think there’s probably almost two dozen decrees that are currently outstanding. The standards that the Obama Justice Department used for imposing these decrees were wholly ignorant. They would accuse the police in, say, Baltimore, or New Orleans, of a racist pattern of policing if police stops and arrests did not match population ratios. So for example if 50% of all police stops in a city had black subjects but the black population was 25%, the Obama Justice Department looked no further and said okay, that’s police racism. But the relevant question is who is committing crime, and what proportion of crime is being committed in minority neighborhoods? And when you take that into account, police activity stops looking racist and starts looking data-driven, which is the reality today. These consent decrees are just grotesquely overpriced. The monitors charge several million dollars a year and they impose endless paperwork requirements on police departments who have to take cops off the beat and put them to work making copies, trying to file reports according to draconian deadlines. The Trump Justice Department under Attorney General Sessions is rightly reviewing the consent decree process. I hope that he will for once, unlike any predecessor administration, make the process transparent, say what will cause them to investigate a police department in the first place, and, after that investigation, I hope that Attorney General Sessions will say we will use crime as our benchmark for measuring police activity, not population ratios.
Brian Anderson: In response to President Trump’s recent firing, controversial firing, of FBI Director James Comey, you wrote a very interesting piece for City Journal taking up a side of Comey’s abbreviated term that risked being lost in all of the discussion about his role in the 2016 election and its aftermath. And this side is his stance on crime and policing. Can you talk a bit more about how Comey reacted to the events you have been talking about so far today that occurred in places like Ferguson, and Baltimore, and Chicago over the past several years, and how did that set him apart from the rest of the Obama administration?
Heather Mac Donald: James Comey was the lone voice of sanity when it came to policing, the lone voice of knowledge. He had direct knowledge of the fact that it is law-abiding members of high-crime areas who beg the police for protection. He described, in an absolutely groundbreaking speech at the University of Chicago Law School in October 2015 which I recommend to all our listeners, Brian, if they want to see the most eloquent defense of proactive policing ever penned. He described a drug operation in 2015 in Northwest Arkansas that took 70 dealers off the streets and the people in that community stood and cheered. They offered food and lodging to the FBI SWAT teams. The dealers were black and so were the people cheering them. Comey saw what I saw in 2015, which is that officers were backing off of proactive policing and crime was rising. And in this 2015 University of Chicago Law School speech he warned of the chill wind that was blowing through American law enforcement. He said cops tell me they don’t much feel like getting out of their cars to make that necessary pedestrian stop at 1:00 a.m. at a known drug corner because as soon as they do they find themselves surrounded by hostile, jeering crowds. When Comey gave this speech, confirming what I have called the Ferguson effect, President Obama two days later slapped him down in the most insulting manner, accused him of cherry-picking data and having a political agenda. But Comey stayed firm. And the next year, when the start of 2016’s crime numbers came in, he said it’s even worse this year, holy cow, do we have a problem. The White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest primly, again, took issue with it and blamed Comey for getting out not having a grasp of crime and policing and what the data was. This, of course, was a ludicrous explanation to think that the Obama White House Press Secretary knows more about what is happening on the streets than the FBI Director is completely absurd. So I, for one, regret that we are losing someone with such hands-on experience with crime and policing and who is willing to stand up even to his own president and tell the truth about what the Black Lives Matter movement, the havoc it was wreaking, in inner city neighborhoods.
Brian Anderson: You have made your views very clear here on the folly of consent decrees, federal consent decrees. What, if any, role should the federal government be playing in helping police?
Heather Mac Donald: I think the federal government has a limited role, Brian. The feds, frankly, don’t know all that much about how to solve crime. The big revolutions in policing that gave us our twenty-year crime decline that is now at risk from what I have called the Ferguson effect, those were local innovations. The feds can help with federal prosecutions for gun and drug crimes. Those fell during the Obama years because of the false narrative coming out from the White House, embraced by both President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, that gun and drug prosecutions were resulting in the mass incarceration of minority men. The feds also have law enforcement agents that can work in conjunction with police, whether it is FBI or Drug Enforcement agents or Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents. But generally I think the feds should stay out of things. They can help with research, something that few law local departments have the funding to do, figure out what works in policing. I would like to see them, as well, get on the record. The thing that I have heard every single time when I go to a police community meeting in a high-crime area, which is the good people in that community begging the police to get the dealers off the corner, to get the gangs of youth hanging out, fighting, off the corner, to get the dealers out of their lobbies, that is what drives policing today. Police are responding to the community when they try to enforce low-level public order laws known as broken windows enforcement, and I’ve heard that, Comey heard that. I would like the Justice Department to do some studies that make this far more real to the public at large.
Brian Anderson: It is not a story that gets into the mainstream press at all. You know, which tends to elect very radical oppositional voices as the voices of the community.
Heather Mac Donald: Absolutely.
Brian Anderson: So it is an important story. You were recently in national headlines a few weeks ago, when protestors at Claremont McKenna College prevented you from speaking to a group on campus that had invited you about policing and policing issues, could you describe that experience for our listeners and really address the broader question, what the blazes is happening to free inquiry on college campus and what can be done about this kind of new campaign of silencing critics of, you know, the conventional university narratives?
Heather Mac Donald: Well the state of model and victimology is just raging out of control at a rate beyond what even I foresaw three years ago or so. It is just stunning, the bubble of delusion, self-pity, and complete disconnect from reality that students are stewing in to the encouragement of faculty and administrators. I had been invited to give a lecture at Claremont McKenna College, which is in the suburbs of Los Angeles, in April. There was supposed to be a large group of students in the audience, I was supposed to meet with students beforehand. The day before I got a note, an email, from one of the administrators who had set this up saying they had gotten word of protest and were considering moving the event to a room with fewer plate glass windows and better means of egress. That is not the sort of thing you necessary want to hear in preparing for a talk. The day of the event, when I showed up at Claremont McKenna, I was picked up at the train station and was told that they decided to keep it in the original venue. Nevertheless, all of the prior events had been canceled. I was not going to meet with students and I was put in, basically, a safehouse for two hours where I could hear the growing mob chanting. I could not see them gathering outside of the building, but I saw protestors walk by, a girl in a Palestinian headscarf with her face masked with a bullhorn amplifier on her back, and what was going on, I learned later, was that about 250 to 300 students had surrounded the venue to prevent anybody from coming in. The protest had been organized by black students who sent out a message to shut it down, shut down the white supremacist, fascist Heather Mac Donald, and they succeeded. The college had brought in some police but they were utterly passive. They put barricades, the police had put barricades around the building to try and protect the entrances but when the students basically tore those barricades down and took control themselves, the police just stood passively by.
Brian Anderson: Why do you think that is the case? Have they been instructed to go easy on the students? I imagine so.
Heather Mac Donald: Well, yes. We are living now in the Black Lives Matter era of passive policing as opposed to proactive policing. And campus police and city police are terrified of having to use force, however lawfully, having that get caught on video and then that becomes the story of the night on CNN or MSNBC. And so there is a tendency to allow the lawbreakers to get the upper hand very quickly. And also, on a campus, of course, you have a reigning ethos of consumerism, which holds that, well, these are paying consumers and we don’t want to make their college experience at all unpleasant. And so I think that contributes to a college president’s reluctance to impose discipline, to impose the rule of law. So I was escorted into the building via a secret passageway and gave my talk to an empty auditorium. They livestreamed it to people who had access to a computer outside the room, but the few people inside who were mostly police officers were hardly paying attention to me. They were riveted by what was happening outside the building, which was people pounding on the plate glass windows and chanting. Eventually they decided they could no longer guarantee my safety and shut down the Q&A period and escorted me out of the building, again under police protection, into a waiting police van from the Claremont Police Department and I was sped away. You know this is going on because of the ideology of victimology, which is telling students that they are at quite literal lethal assault from circumambient racism. This is a fantasy. There is no environment in human history that is more tolerant or compassionate, at least if you are not a Conservative, than a college campus. There is not a single racist faculty member and yet the faculty and administrators encourage students in this delusion. So they are shutting down speech under the pretext that it is somehow threatening their existence if it does not conform to politically correct ideology.
Brian Anderson: At beautiful Claremont McKenna College, the campus of which is in one of the prettiest places you could imagine, it is really hard to wrap your head around these kids thinking of themselves as victims and speech as a form of violence. It is striking. What was the reaction of the, you know, the campus faculty and the administrators to what happened?
Heather Mac Donald: I don’t know of any collective response by the faculty. I engaged in one email exchange with a humanities professor who was quite testy about my writing, particularly my evisceration of a petition that came out afterwards by “We, the few students of color at Pomona College and the other Claremont colleges,” which includes Claremont McKenna, the president issued a denunciation after the event to the campus community taking responsibility for the lack of police response and saying that the students would be held accountable. To my knowledge nothing has happened yet. He also called me about two weeks later. I asked him whether at a previous outbreak of mass hysteria in 2015 when students demanded the firing of a student dean who subsequently resigned for a completely inoffensive, poorly phrased expression of solidarity with minority students, if President Chodosh had the courage to tell those protestors that they were simply wrong, that they were not in a racist environment, that his own faculty were not racists, he ducked the question and promised to send me materials on their local safe space but he has not done so.
Brian Anderson: Well, that is a grim tale. It really is. Don’t forget to check out Heather’s ongoing work for City Journal on our website. We would also love to hear your comments about today’s episode on Twitter, @CityJournal with the hashtag #10Blocks. Lastly, if you like this podcast and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. Thanks for listening and thank you very much, Heather, for joining us.
Heather Mac Donald: Thank you, Brian. I appreciate it.
Brian Anderson: You can subscribe to this and other Manhattan Institute podcasts in the iTunes store. The audio edition and transcript is available on our website, www.city-journal.org. This is City Journal editor Brian Anderson. Thanks again for listening to the 10 Blocks Podcast.