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Race, Riots, and the Cops

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Race, Riots, and the Cops

10 Blocks podcast June 4, 2020
Public safety
The Social Order

City Journal contributing editors Coleman Hughes and Rafael Mangual discuss the protests and riots across the United States—including attacks on police officers—and the dispiriting state of American racial politics. The unrest began last week, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis.

The disorder should not be surprising, Mangual notes, because “police have been the targets of a poisonous, decades-long campaign to paint law enforcement as a violent cog in the machine of a racially oppressive criminal-justice system.” Hughes wonders whether fixing the perception that police are unfair to black Americans is even achievable.

Audio Transcript

Michael Hendrix: It's been a challenging time for many in this country, from the scene of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis to the protests riots, and even looting in New York City, Washington, DC, and many other cities across this country. We're seeing injustice. Yes. Also joined by expressions of anger and violence, alongside tough questions in our policing practices in America, Coleman Hughes and Ralf Mangual, both fellows at the Manhattan Institute will join us today for a discussion on cities in crisis. They will address the recent riots across urban America and particularly in New York city and their implications for public order, policing, race relations, and even our cities reopening. And now, Coleman and Ralf.

Coleman, I wondered if you could kick us off with some opening thoughts and then we'll go to Ralf.

Coleman Hughes: Sure. Thank you, Michael. Yeah, I am struck by a sense of very deep despair for my country right now. I mean, it feels like the entire nation is on fire and it's a very, very grim time to be an American right now. And I have a lot of thoughts about it, but for now I'll just give you a sense of why I feel so pessimistic about this at the moment. From what I can see, there is a very deeply felt and widespread perception among black Americans and among white liberals, that the police are unfair to black people and racist and quicker to use force and quicker to pull the trigger.

And to me, this is a perception that is only partly true. From what I know, the most rigorous studies such as Roland Fryer's have found that the police are more likely to use nonlethal force, to rough up a suspect if he's black under similar circumstances. That also accords with common sense and life experience. On the other hand, the police are not more likely to shoot and kill a black suspect. It actually isn't true. It may have been true in the not too distant past, but in the living memory of the Black Lives Matter movement, which really began in earnest in 2012 and ballooned in 2014, this whole it has been false that the police are more likely to shoot and kill black Americans.

And it's impossible for people to keep this in their mind without feeling as if they're dismissing the entire history of white supremacy going back to Jim Crow and slavery. It's all connected for people and they cannot separate the issues. And there has been a massive and pernicious coverage bias in the media in the past eight years on these issues. There was a man named Tony Timpa who was a white man in Dallas who was killed exactly the same way George Floyd was killed with a cop's knee on his back suffocating, begging for his life. And when that video came out, there were no protests, there were no riots, they didn't even go viral so far as I was concerned.

And there are plenty of other videos like this of white men in particular being killed in precisely the circumstances that were they black would inspire at worst a wave of national unrest and at best an outpouring of grief on social media. And so the media, by selectively covering these has prepared black Americans to feel as if our people are being uniquely hunted. And then we react as many people would, if their people were in fact being uniquely hunted by the cops.

And I despair because I have no idea how we get out of this situation now. And on the one hand, many people who lived through the late sixties are telling me it was worse then, and I think they're right in many respects. The riots were more widespread. I think there was more damage at least so far, this episode is not over. It was 1967 and it came back in 1968 and the Vietnam war and so on and so forth. But at the same time that was followed by a 20 year period of relative peace. You didn't see so many riots in the seventies and hardly any in the eighties.

And what I worry is that I'm not sure this one is going to be followed by a 20 year piece because all of the conditions for the rioting are going to be here seemingly perpetually in the near term. Which is to say, I don't know how we get rid of the perception or temper the perception that the police are deeply unfair to black Americans, given that the media has so much of this inertia on this issue. And just that habit of not at all caring when a white person gets killed in this way. I don't know how we fix that. So I don't know how we fix the perception.

I don't know how we fix given the reality of American policing, I don't know how we get the number of unarmed black people who get killed per year down to zero, which it seems to me would be required in order to never have these spark events. The reality of American policing is that there's a third of a billion people in this country already. So we have way more police- civilian interactions than almost any other country in the world we want to compare ourselves to per unit time. Uniquely, we have a country with more guns than people, which means cops when they pull over a suspect can have a much more rational expectation that the suspect will have a gun. And so an American policeman, even if he is well-trained, has more reason to mistake the wallet for a gun than in most other places in the world. And that's not going to change.

Everyone is a journalist now. Everyone has a camera in their pocket which they can turn on within three seconds of wanting to. Which to be clear, I think is a net good for transparency and for preventing police abuse and for holding police accountable, which is a huge problem. But it also means that any event, even a video out of context, can go viral the same day. And so given all of these conditions, I don't see how we go even five years without a wave of rioting like this.

And finally, I'm very, very, very in favor of addressing the deep seated corruption that exists in the police. The police protect their own no matter what, like most institutions do, but we fail to address it. They're often given too much leeway. Sometimes it's police chiefs deciding whether to punish their own people, which in any organization leads to bias. And so I'm for addressing all of these things, but I try to imagine in detail what the country looks like when we have addressed all of them.

And I wonder if we actually get the number of unarmed black Americans killed by the cops down from what it was last year, which is nine, nine out of 40 million black people. I wonder if we get that number down from nine to zero and I don't see it happening. And I despair for the country for that reason.

Michael Hendrix: Coleman. That was powerful. Ralf, I wonder how you'd like to follow up, what your thoughts are.

Rafael Mangual: Yeah. I mean, look, I think there's a real truth to the idea, as staunch protector of free speech that I think we all are, I think there is a real truth to the fact that the way that these events have been covered, the tone of the rhetoric in the media is very much feeding the sense of, I think, despair and anger that leads tens of thousands of people to take to the streets several nights in a row in American cities across the country to, some express anger peacefully, but many to move and destroy and sort of exert dominance over the public space in a way that I think rightly puts fear in the hearts of a lot of Americans, including myself by illustrating just how thin the edge is that society teeters on.

I think a lot of people, because of the sort of comforts of modern times, have been able to sort of take for granted the peace that we all enjoy. And I think that has probably contributed to some degree to the looseness of tongue with which a lot of these really important issues are addressed. When we talk about the sort of disparate coverage of these issues, Coleman rightly pointed out the fact that white Americans are very often the victims of exactly the kinds of abuses that we saw on video with George Floyd.

And I think that's a problem, but also there's a real problem in how we cover and how our media covers not just white Americans who are victimized by police, but also one of the biggest threats to black life and limb, which is run of the mill street crime, right? There have been some rigorous analysis done to put a number on what the odds are that someone will be victimized violently by the police. And for black men, the odds of dying in police custody are one in 1000. And the odds are obviously not as low as winning the lottery, but it's certainly not anywhere comparable to the odds of being shot and killed by a street criminal, right?

For Americans in general, the odds of dying from gun assault at one in 298. That's for all Americans in general, and you know for example, that black men are about six and a half times more likely to be the victims of a homicide than their white counterparts. If you do that math, we can see that the odds of being killed by a street criminal are orders of magnitude larger than the threat posed by American police. And I think this gets lost in the rhetoric, and so when I look outside and I see the sort of violence that we've all been horrified by, I'm not entirely surprised, which is to say that it's almost understandable if you accept that a large portion of our society sincerely believes that they are the victims of this kind of oppression.

And like Coleman, I'm afraid that I don't have great answers to the question of how we sort of roll that back. I think the greatest hope to pushing back against the kind of domination that this rhetoric has exercised over polite society is to give people the courage to speak out when they don't fit into that box. And I don't think that people actually have the space to do that. I also don't think that were we to be able to get the number of unarmed black men down to zero, that things would change all that much.

And I say that because the difference between nine and zero is much smaller than the difference between the hundreds of people that were the recipients of deadly force exercised by the police even 40 years ago and the handful of people for whom that's true now if you look at departments like New York city. In 1971, the NYPD killed nearly a hundred people. They shot and wounded 220. Last year, they discharged their weapons a total of like 65, 70 times. This is not a lack of progress. And if that kind of jump isn't enough to sort of temper the rhetoric, I'm not sure that getting the number of unarmed blacks killed by police down this year is going to make much difference.

Nor do I think it's possible in part because as Coleman pointed out, there are instances in which police can understandably and justifiably, based on an objective standard, mistake something innocuous for a weapon. That's in part due, I think to their experiences in the field, it's in part due to the ubiquity of gun ownership in this country. It is also in part due to the fact that police are humans. They make mistakes, they have families that they want to get home to. And one of the reasons I don't think you see the sort of racial bias or at least the case for racial bias and deadly force numbers that you might be able to see in non deadly force numbers if precisely that in those situations, police are operating pursuant to one thing and that is their desire to live.

And the idea that all of these cases can be chopped up to murder is not only untrue, it's irresponsible. One example of how this can play out I think you saw this was in the Stephon Clark shooting in California almost two years ago. Now this was a man who was unarmed, he had a cell phone that was mistaken for a gun, he was breaking windows and jumping from backyard to backyard, spotted by police, police chased him through the street into a backyard and he ran up the driveway, made a left into the yard and police chased. And then you see in the helicopter video that covered the shooting, that as police makes their way up the driveway, as they break the plane of the back of the house, you see the first officer stop short, runs back behind the house and pulls his partner back with him. And then they fired their weapons from cover.

It's not something that you would do unless you truly believe that the person in that backyard was armed and dangerous, right? Yet there was no patience to explore that evidence, there was no evidence to appreciate that nuance and although the pitch did not reach the level that we see today, there were massive protests in South Carolina.

Michael Hendrix: Ralf, I wanted to ask you a question here to also tee up discussion too, and one point that I want to get to after this question is what are your thoughts on the goals of the riots. We've seen different goals thrown out there, what is the endpoint, where does this lead. But Ralf, and maybe you, Coleman, there was a piece by Radley Balko who compared the different experiences that black and white Americans have when they see these viral videos or when they encounter police, and I wonder what your take is on it. If you haven't read it, he said when white people, this is in Washington Post, when white people see a video of unjust police abuse of a white person, it may make us angry, sad, or uncomfortable, but most of us don't see ourselves in the position of the person in the video.

But when black people see the video of an officer kneeling on, say, George Floyd's neck, their reaction is much more likely to be, that could have been me or my son or my friend or my brother. And he says, in general, it seems clear that when confronted with a story about one of their own dying at the hands of police, black people tend to internalize while white people tend to compartmentalize. And then he goes on with some implications of that. What's your response to this?

Rafael Mangual: I think there's a lot of truth to that, which is to say that I think it's true that people do have those sort of disparate reactions along racial lines. And I think part of that is because there is a sort of cultural thread that runs through the black community that is one kind of rooted in this idea of solidarity. I think one of the reasons that maybe a white American sees one of these videos and doesn't see themselves in it is because, at least in the instance where the watcher is someone who's a law-abiding citizen, they don't expect that to be a real outcome because they don't expect to have that kind of interaction with the police.

Whereas I think, again, partly because of the sort of rhetorical posture of our modern debate, a lot of black Americans, irrespective of how law abiding they are, are sort of made to feel like this is an inevitability. But in fact, if you look at the data on police use of force, many of the studies make very clear that for example, the rate of violent crime is a much stronger predictor of changes in police use of force for a particular neighborhood, than racial demographics.

And I think Coleman hit that on the nose when he talked about the real sense of fear that a police officer feels when he walks up to a car during a traffic stop, and I do think that it differs between communities but I don't think it's purely a matter of race. I don't really know what we do about the truth [inaudible 00:18:24] other than to say that we keep hammering home the data that show that for the fact, police by and large are a group that is characterized much more by professionalism and restraint than by bigotry and violence.

Michael Hendrix: Coleman, I wonder if you have thoughts on this too.

Coleman Hughes: I think his observation is more or less correct. I think a lot of black people, they see themselves or their family. At the same time, I think you can risk getting reductionist with that because it really just depends on the person. What does a black cop see? Over half of the NYPD are nonwhite, right? Does the black cop immediately empathize with the suspect or do they think, what was it like apprehending that suspect?

A lot of black people have cops in their families, a lot of white people see it and immediately empathize with the person, they have black people in their family, or they actually have the kind of mind that is less sensitive to the skin color difference so they immediately feel like it could have been them too. You see all the reactions, but I think as a pattern, that observation is basically correct.

Michael Hendrix: What do you see as the end points, the goals of these protests? I've seen on social media viral posts from the NAACP demanding among other things an end to choke holds and knees on the neck. I'm also seeing people raise issues with police unions on defending their own, not being accountable, but there also doesn't seem to be any sort of direct leadership here on the protests that would say if certain demands are met, then we collectively across the country go back home.

Rafael Mangual: I'd like to react to that, I think part of the reason you don't see that kind of sort of collective agreement to certain terms is because I think that there are differences between and among many of the people that fall under the category of protesters in terms of their goals and what they're in this for. But I think we have to be very sort of measured and sober about what we can expect from some of these popular reform proposals.

For example, police policies that ban choke holds don't necessarily prevent those things from being used, nor do they prevent, and we saw that with Eric Garner, that the NYPD had an administrative ban on choke holds. But what those policies can't do is change the underlying law, which is that while it may be cause to fire someone like Daniel Pantaleo for violating that police policy, whether or not the use of that kind of choke hold is criminal doesn't have anything to do with how the police department in question categorizes that.

And that's why I think the fact that even though Pantaleo was fired, no one really was satisfied with how that case turned out, because there wasn't a criminal prosecution. But a lot of other sort of really popular things, especially with relation to police accountability, I think also just have to be looked at soberly and they don't really strike me as things that are likely to make enough of a difference to tone down the rhetoric.

I mean, take qualified immunity for example, which has been a huge target for a lot of people engaging in this debate. And yeah, I think there is a real strong case to be made that the idea of qualified immunity is wrong. And that there's a case that you made that this is just judicial activism and practice and that there'll be ideas detached from the text of the statute, which is section 1983 of title 42 of the US code. But if you look at the empirics, qualified immunity is only a bar to recovery in about 4% of the cases in which that defense can be raised.

Yet again, you have sort of a running theme here is that the rhetoric just does not match the reality. People, it was on USA today recently, as we see from the Cato Institute's Clark Neily, people are adamantly jumping on the George Floyd incident to make a case that this is now the time to end qualified immunity as if qualified immunity is a shield to criminal liability, which it is not. And as if qualified immunity functions as the kind of shield that people make it out to be when in fact it does not.

I recently wrote a large piece for the Federalist society that looked at a database of lawsuits filed against the NYPD, it contained more than 2000 lawsuits and they were like a couple dozen that had been resolved in favor of the police officers. And it doesn't say which ones of those were because of qualified immunity, but even if you assume that all those resolved in favor of the police were on qualified immunity grounds, you're still looking at a couple percent of that whole. And so again, I think that even if some of these policy proposals are inaccurate, I think people are going to be in for a rude awakening.

Michael Hendrix: Coleman, I wonder if you'd like to jump in too.

Coleman Hughes: Yeah, I don't think that the riots have a goal. I mean, if you notice the rioting started after charges were brought against the cop that killed George Floyd, not before. And then they shifted the goalpost some of them said, what we really want is for you to charge the other three officers too. But do we actually believe that? No. The riots are not a goal-oriented movement at all. They're not a terrorist organization that says we're going to use violence if you meet these criteria. It's not the civil rights movement that had a clear program.

No doubt, there are lots of peaceful protestors. I've seen videos of them, in fact, restraining the rioters sometimes. And you're going to find probably a higher proportion of those people, having some kind of concrete program. They've read the articles about qualified immunity and they think it's a silver bullet. And I take Rafael's point that it's almost certainly not. It doesn't mean we shouldn't get rid of it per se, but I think none of these, the body cams aren't going to be a silver bullet, but I still support them because I think they increase trust.

Something like a civilian review board or a review board of some other kind probably also is not going to be a silver bullet, but they all might move the needle somewhat. But yet the riots are an expression of frustration at two things. First, the widespread perception that the cops are racist and treat black people unfairly. And the keenly felt perception of that. And two, the feeling that there has been no progress in recent years through normal democratic means. George Zimmerman killed Trayvon in 2012 and Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in 2020.

Nobody cares about the data. I care about the data, you do Raphael, and people at the Institute will, but we are extremely weird for that. The typical person does not, I'm sorry, I'm worked up, does not give a s*** about the data, okay? And they're watching ten second snippets on their cell phone. And if they see one in 2012 and one in 2020, it doesn't matter that the number of black people killed by the cops has more than cut in half since then, right? Even since we've been counting in 2015, the Washington Post database, the numbers have come down actually pretty remarkably. And nobody even knows that, nobody cares about it.

It's not going to be reported on the news for a myriad of different reasons having to do with baseline human psychology, but also with, the would be rioters are not a population that is going to be sensitive to any level of progress other than a complete elimination of the issue. And that, if they can be said to have a coherent goal, it would be that, it would be zero. A zero rate of cops killing black people year after year after year. And I really do not see how that is possible.

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