Cops, Crime, and Race

The problems are real. The discourse is toxic.

Former police officer Derek Chauvin is on trial in Minneapolis for the murder of George Floyd. Also in Minneapolis, anger flares again over the fatal shooting of another black man, 20-year-old Daunte Wright, by a police officer who apparently mistook her gun for a taser. Once again, America’s eyes are on the fraught issue of policing and racism.

We have rhetoric like this from a Democratic congresswoman and from a progressive corporation.

Never mind that, in various polls, black Americans are very likely to say they want more (but better and fairer) policing.

We also have some conservatives trying to suggest that Wright’s past troubles with the law excuse his shooting and that Floyd was killed by his own drug use.

Coulter, who has also called Chauvin a “human sacrifice” and penned an obscenely sneering column on the testimony about Floyd’s death, is reliably and exceptionally repulsive. But in less extreme form, the narrative that Floyd was to blame for his own death seems to be dominant on the Trumpian right. (It’s certainly #NotAllConservatives: Trump-sympathetic Andrew McCarthy at National Review, for instance, has been covering the trial thoroughly and fairly, and his reports have been devastating for the defense.) Likewise, while “abolish the police” rhetoric is extreme and Joe Biden has strongly condemned protest-related violence (as he did during the campaign), the view that police killings of blacks reflect systemic racism is a mainstream narrative.

I think the “police violence toward black citizens is endemic, racist, and rooted in white supremacy” narrative and the “police racism is a myth and police brutality is just a few bad apples” narrative are both false, simplistic, and counterproductive. There are real problems with policing, some racial, some not. Can they be solved or at least ameliorated? I hope so. But false narratives make for bad solutions.

“Lived Experience”

I’m well aware that according to the rules of Social Justice Discourse, I have no valid insights on the issue because I’m “privileged.”

I’m also well aware that I belong to the demographic most likely to get preferential treatment from cops: middle-class, middle-aged white female. I have stories. A couple of years ago I saw flashing lights behind me while turning into a shopping plaza. When I pulled over, it turned out that I had cut off a cop. Worse, when he demanded to see my papers, it turned out that I didn’t have my registration or insurance card (I had just gotten a new car that day and had forgotten to put them in the glove compartment). I was fully prepared to have my ass handed to me. Instead, he ran a check of my ID and let me off with a warning.

Was this “white privilege”—or at least, “not-black” privilege, which often get conflated? (Asian-Americans generally fare at least as well as whites in police interactions; the data for Hispanics is mixed.) I would say that it was female and class privilege at least as much; the cop looked at me and saw a nice-looking, conservatively dressed middle-class woman with a nice old lady (my mom) in the passenger seat. I was also extremely deferential and apologetic. The one time in my life I was non-deferential to a cop (he told me I was going at a much higher speed than I actually was and I tried to argue), he acted like an abusive bully, telling me that talking back was a sure way to get a ticket and ordering me to tell him where I was going.

I should also mention that I spent the first 16 years of my life in a country (the Soviet Union) where the standard assumption was that the police—or, as they were called in the USSR, “militia”—were the enemy. As a teen, my mother was manhandled and kicked by a militiaman who was clearing away a crowd from a movie theater entrance during some hugely popular and overbooked film festival. The “lived experience” of a Russian male friend includes an incident from his late teens or early twenties when a militiaman saw him and his girlfriend kissing on a park bench and forcibly hiked up his girlfriend’s skirt, ostensibly to make sure she was wearing panties and no indecent liberties were taking place.

During my family’s first month of life in the U.S., in July 1980—in Jackson Heights, Queens—I had my first encounter with an American police officer (who was, incidentally, black). My dad and I were picking up a couch left on the sidewalk to take it home. When we saw a cop heading toward us, my first reaction was “Uh-oh”: even though we’d been told that it was perfectly legal and fine to pick up discarded furniture, I thought we were about to get yelled at or even fined. Instead, the officer greeted us with a friendly smile and asked if we needed help, and did in fact help carry the couch to our building. Wow, I thought. In this country the cop is actually your friend.

Obviously, I learned soon enough that the reality is far more complicated—even apart from race. (One of my less pleasant New York experiences, about a dozen years ago, was witnessing a white female cop at Penn Station rouse a probably homeless old white guy sleeping on a bench by roughly prodding him with her nightstick and barking at him to get up.) But if the reality is more complicated than “Cops are noble and heroic,” it’s also more complicated than “All cops are racist bastards.”

I’m well aware that black Americans, especially black males, are far too often treated by the police as presumptive suspects; I may not understand it as viscerally as one would from firsthand experience, but I can still understand how degrading and infuriating it can be. (That’s why we have language, reason and empathy.)

And yet even there, current discourse is prone to overgeneralization and hyperbole.

Disentangling the Data

Polls consistently show some 40 percent of black Americans (including 60 percent of black men) say they have been unfairly stopped or questioned by police because of their race. In another poll, six out of 10 black Americans say this has happened either to them or to a relative. Obviously, that’s outrageous. It also means that 60 percent of black Americans have no firsthand experience of unfair treatment by the police; 40 percent have no second-hand experience via a family member, either. This is not “the glass half-full”; but it also suggests that being mistreated by the police is not a universal constant in the lives of all black Americans, which is the impression conveyed by so much current rhetoric.

How does the experience of black Americans in this regard compare to that of other groups?

Here’s a recent finding from Gallup. (Interestingly, whites, blacks, and Hispanics in the poll reported interactions with the police in the past 12 months at similar rates: 42 percent, 44 percent, and 49 percent, respectively.)

There are obvious disparities that suggest a problem (even if one assumes that some black respondents were especially sensitive to unfair treatment because of the passions around the issue of police racism after the death of George Floyd). But do they suggest endemic, rampant racism, given that most blacks say they were treated fairly and respectfully in recent police interactions? Does a gap of 17-20 percentage points indicate pervasive white supremacy—or a persistent but more limited problem?

The Bureau of Justice Statistics studies of contacts between the police and the public (conducted in 1999, 2002, 2005, 2008, 2015, and 2018) paint a similarly complicated picture. The 2015 survey, for example, finds that about the same percentage of white and black Americans (9.7 percent and 9.8 percent) have had a police-initiated contact in the past year, usually a traffic stop. About 86 percent of white drivers and 72 percent of black drivers felt that the stop was legitimate; 3 percent of black drivers vs. 1.8 percent of whites were not given a reason for the stop. Blacks were also less likely, by 4-5 percentage points, to say the police behaved properly during the stop. Street stops were rare in all groups (0.59 percent of whites and Hispanics and 0.89 percent of blacks reported one in the past year), but were clearly perceived more negatively by blacks and Hispanics.

More complicated data come from a large-scale recent study of traffic stops, cited as evidence of bias because it found that black drivers are less likely to be stopped after dusk when the driver’s race is less visible. The disparity was about 5 percentage points. A less-noticed item from the same study: while black drivers were about twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during traffic stops, the “hit rate” for contraband was the same for both—meaning that blacks were not unfairly singled out. (Hispanic drivers, apparently, were.)

Lastly, there is Harvard economist Roland Fryer’s famous 2016 study, cited by some conservatives as proof that there is no “systemic police racism” because it shows that black suspects are not more likely than white ones to be shot in police encounters. (More on that later.) Yet it also showed that blacks stopped as part of New York’s stop-and-frisk program were approximately 20 percent more likely than whites—even if perfectly compliant—to be pushed against the wall or to the ground, handcuffed, otherwise manhandled, or threatened with a weapon.

Racism by Design?

The standard progressive explanation for such disparities is that American policing is racist by design. There have been attempts, not very successful—as in a recent New Yorker essay by historian Jill Lepore—to link its origins to Southern slave patrols. (In fact, Lepore’s own essay shows that American professional policing emerged in mostly Northern cities.) It is obviously true that policing in America began during a time of egregious racism, legalized segregation, and racial terror in large parts of the country. But institutions evolve. Urban policing in much of America also evolved during a time of rampant anti-immigrant bias and was rife with such prejudices; the terms “paddy wagon” and “hooligan” reflect the stereotype of Irish people as a criminal class. Fast-forward a few decades, and Irish people dominated the police force.

Is there a mechanism by which white supremacy got “baked into” law enforcement so that it would continue to operate even when racist laws and policies were gone, overt racism declined dramatically, and black men and women rose to positions of power in numerous city governments and police departments? This is a strikingly conspiratorial idea. Racism, in this viewpoint, is either a mystical evil whose unexorcised presence at the foundation continues to taint institutions regardless of anyone’s intent, or a brilliantly insidious fail-safe mechanism built into the system by its racist founders.

Far more than some overarching design of white supremacy, I suspect the racial disparities in policing are the result of several distinct but connected factors. There’s the historical legacy of racism, which makes black Americans disproportionately more likely to be poor, struggle with economic instability, and live in high-crime communities (and in cash-strapped municipalities where petty violations will often get the cops on your back because fines are an important revenue source). There’s conscious anti-black racism which exists to varying degrees within police ranks (a relatively small percentage of racist cops can be enough to affect the overall picture). There is also unconscious racial profiling stemming from actual differences in crime rates. (In 2018, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey—i.e., victim reports—33 percent of aggravated assault offenders and 55 percent of robbery offenders were black.)

Of course such profiling should not happen—people should not be judged or stereotyped on the basis of their group membership—but some degree of stereotyping is deeply ingrained in the human brain, especially in situations that require quick decisions. Statistics on police interactions with civilians show that males and young people of every background are profiled as a matter of course. Juvenile justice researcher Mike Males reports, analyzing The Washington Post’s officer-involved shootings database: “Unarmed, non attacking teenagers are nearly five times more likely and suspects in their 20s three times more likely to be shot to death by officers than similarly non attacking middle-aged suspects.” Disturbingly, however, Males found that while the age disparity is quite dramatic for whites and Hispanics, black suspects may not be as protected by age.

Do such biases affect police shootings and other fatal outcomes? Maybe. Fryer points out that, according to some studies, black suspects are actually less likely to be fatally shot in a police encounter. While a 2019 study finds that a black male’s lifetime risk of being killed by a police officer is 2.4 times higher than for a white male, this disparity is due to the fact that more black men get arrested (and again, if you look at victim-reported characteristics of violent crime perpetrators, this cannot be blamed primarily on racial profiling).

Not long ago, when I did a Clubhouse chat on “cancel culture” and gave “police killings are not the result of racism” as an example of a controversial opinion that people should be able to express without fear of being “canceled,” the chat host was sincerely shocked. He conceded that, in the name of free speech, such opinions should be protected, but he also expressed genuine amazement that anyone could hold such an opinion: after all, he pointed out, every video we have seen of an innocent person being killed or severely injured by police involves a black victim.

That’s not true, of course. There’s Daniel Shaver, the Arizona dad who begged the cops not to shoot him while crawling on the floor of a hotel hallway trying to comply with contradictory demands. There’s Tony Timpa, the mentally ill man who called the police for assistance and ended up dying while several cops pinned him to the ground and made fun of his frantic pleas. There’s Hannah Williams, the mentally ill teenager in Fullerton, California, who was shot in the chest while holding a replica gun (which she may have been pointing at the officer). There’s Zachary Hammond, the 19-year-old South Carolina man shot, unarmed, during a drug sting targeting his female passenger. There’s David Kassick, the 59-year-old Pennsylvania resident who was tased while fleeing after a traffic stop and then shot in the back as he lay on the ground because the police officer saw his hands slip under his body and thought he might have been reaching for a gun. Some of those cases (all of which ended with no punishment for the cops) got a fair amount of media coverage; but they don’t penetrate the national consciousness because they don’t fit the prevailing narrative.

I understand why the deaths of black men and women at the hands of the police have more resonance given America’s terrible history of racial violence. But the almost exclusive focus on those cases, and their exclusively racial framing, makes for an extremely misleading picture—one that translates into the sincere belief that a reckless, awful, but clearly accidental police shooting as in the case of Daunte Wright is a manifestation of intentionally racist policing. What could be the intention, given the devastating fallout from such incidents in 2021?

The Problem with Police Culture

Some deaths at the hands of police are tragic mistakes. Some, like it or not, really are primarily the victim’s fault. But there is also, as with the death of George Floyd, a pattern of cops behaving badly. There is a toxic strain within police culture that includes an us vs. them attitude toward civilians, an aggressively punitive mindset, and belief in the absolute authority of the cop. I don’t know what percentage of cops have that mindset, but it’s more than a few “bad apples.”

I’ve encountered this mindset several times from people who were vicarious members of police culture—i.e., people with family members who were cops. The most memorable of these conversation was with a middle-aged New York-area limo driver in 2017 (let’s call him Ben). Ben had voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, and for Trump in 2016; he had turned vehemently against the Democrats because of their support for Black Lives Matter. He had several cops in his family (including his father and uncle, a brother, and his son and daughter) and saw the Democrats’ embrace of BLM as a betrayal.

Ben had very firm opinions about policing (and life in general). Anyone who didn’t obey a cop’s orders had it coming. Anyone who disrespected a cop had it coming. The people killed by cops were, pretty much without exception, lowlifes and scumbags whose death was no loss to society. Only the weak-minded could see them as victims.

Ben assured me he that was not a racist; he felt the same about anyone, black or white, who couldn’t or wouldn’t play by the rules, respect authority, and generally meet his standards of useful life. He even felt that way about a close relative who had recently died of health issues related to chronic substance abuse, which had previously cost him his job, his marriage and his house: the guy had clearly brought it on himself and had been nothing but a burden on society. (This monologue was especially horrifying because Ben revealed, in passing, that the relative in question had started drinking after losing a child.)

I suspect this authoritarian mindset is often closely intertwined with at least some level of racism, if only because the people who qualify as lowlifes in this worldview are disproportionately likely to be black. But with or without racism, it’s a deeply troubling mindset. It’s also closely related to the view that people who aren’t cops have no idea how stressful a cop’s job is and therefore have no right to judge—a conservative version of “standpoint epistemology” in which no white person can really understand black perspectives on police violence.

Of course police officers have a stressful job (though, as an official website that promotes law enforcement careers notes, it’s not one of the most dangerous occupations in the U.S.). I have immense respect for those who do this job well. But I also think that, beyond the mindset of individual cops, current police training which encourages shooting to kill to avoid even the slightest risk of getting shot—even when confronting a probably innocent civilian—needs to change. If the police have a mission to protect civilians, protecting civilian life should be the priority. Obviously, that equation changes when the civilian is clearly violent and dangerous; but the current threshold for risk that justifies the use of deadly force seems way too low.

Black Crime Victims Matter Too

Yes, I know that so-called “black-on-black crime” can be a way to whatabout police brutality. Violence perpetrated by agents of the state, especially when those agents of the state are rarely held accountable, carries a special moral weight.

Nonetheless, it’s difficult to get around the fact that black Americans are vastly more likely to suffer injury and death at the hands of criminals than at the hands of cops. And that’s not to mention all the other ways in which crime affects the quality of life, including the economy.

Current discourse about mass incarceration and race usually ignores the fact that in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, some of the strongest advocacy for tough-on-crime measures came from black politicians. Congressional Black Caucus leader Charlie Rangel was one of America’s foremost champions of the War on Drugs. It’s also notable that while Rudy Giuliani’s popularity as mayor was far lower with black New Yorkers than with whites (with Hispanics in the middle), black voters often gave him high marks for his handling of crime.

Recently, crime has been on the rise again after a historic decline. Last year in particular saw a surge in murders and other violent crimes. There are no doubt many complicated factors at work. But a troubling new study shows that in 2015-2019, Black Lives Matter protests seem to have been correlated with spikes in crime—whether because of higher tensions between police and the community, less proactive law enforcement, or the fraying of public order. The study by Travis Campbell, a Ph.D. student in economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, found that cities and towns which experienced BLM protests saw a decline in officer-involved killings but a rise in murders. While the findings are preliminary and should be treated with caution, the estimate is that the drop in police killings saved about 300 lives but the spike in other homicides took 1000 to 6000. And that’s not counting the events of 2020.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I hope that Derek Chauvin is convicted, for the sake of justice as well as peace. (I don’t mean to suggest that the achievement of civic peace is disentangled from justice, here—certainly, if I believed Chauvin was innocent I wouldn’t want him convicted, regardless of the consequences.)

But going forward, we need a better way to talk about crime, policing, and race across the board.

Conservatives need to resist the impulse to excuse the inexcusable when it comes to police actions and apply their skepticism of government power to cops.

Democrats need to learn to talk about the high cost of crime—particularly to minority communities—at the same time that they talk about the evil of police brutality. They also desperately need a more fact-based and more nuanced conversation on police violence and race. I agree with Barack Obama that much needs to be done to reform policing and public safety; but his explicitly racial framing of the killing of Daunte Wright (“yet another shooting of a Black man … at the hand of the police”) should have been balanced with an acknowledgment that the problem is not just racial. It would be tremendously helpful if President Biden, Vice President Harris, and other high-level Democrats (including former President Obama) acknowledged some of the white and Hispanic victims of police killings and addressed the issue of rising violent crime.

The mainstream media, too, need to reexamine the standard narrative of police violence and race.

Criminal justice reforms that promote police accountability are important. But at this point, racially polarizing rhetoric and irresponsible calls to defund or dismantle the police can only hurt that cause.

Bonus: My Conversation with Christina Hoff Sommers

If you didn’t get a chance last week to watch or listen to my chat with Christina Hoff Sommers, you can watch it here. I enjoyed this conversation quite a bit. Don’t forget to subscribe to Arc’s YouTube channel, where my chats will regularly appear.