Journalists bear some responsibility for inciting Micah Johnson’s murderous assault on Dallas police during a Black Lives Matter protest last Thursday night, says writer Heather Mac Donald.
The Texas murders “show how dangerous the anti-cop narrative is,” Mac Donald tells The Crime Report.
“The media is playing with fire by peddling nonstop the false conceit that police officers are the biggest threat facing young black men today.”
The events last week—two controversial police shootings of black men followed by Johnson’s retaliatory assault—speak to the fundamental themes of Mac Donald’s provocative new book, The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe (Encounter).
The book is a jeremiad (and sharp counterpunch) centered on her view that “multiple myths” about race, crime, policing and incarceration have created a twisted narrative about American criminal justice.
Mac Donald, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank, sees crime and punishment through a much different prism.
She uses the controversial police slaying of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 as the anti-cop fulcrum point. After Ferguson, she writes in the book, “a lie overtook significant parts of the country and grew into a kind of mass hysteria. That lie holds that the police pose a mortal threat to black Americans—indeed, that the police are the greatest threat facing black Americans today.”
She says black-on-black violence is a much greater problem.
Mac Donald sets a gritted-teeth tone in the book’s opening sentence, calling President Obama “the most anti-law enforcement administration in memory.”
She labels Black Lives Matter a “fraud” and rebukes the media and liberal scholars for portraying black victimhood as a caricature of specious systemic bias. The liberal point of view is zinged 20 times in the book’s 230 pages as “elite.”
“The race industry and its elite enablers take it as self-evident that high black incarceration rates result from discrimination,” she writes, adding, “The black incarceration rate is overwhelmingly a function of black crime.”
Mac Donald rejects the idea that the United States has too many people in prison.
“In the final analysis,” she writes, “America does not have an incarceration problem; it has a crime problem. And the only answer to that crime problem is to rebuild the family—above all, the black family.”
Mac Donald and The Crime Report’s David J. Krajicek discussed her book in a series of email exchanges.
The Crime Report: In the context of the arguments you make in the book, how would you frame the events last week: caught-on-video police shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota that became the talk of the nation, followed by the horrific Dallas massacre?
Heather Mac Donald: The videoed police shootings last week look very bad, but they are not complete records of the incidents. If no facts come out to explain why the officers thought the victims were reaching for their guns, then the shootings were sickeningly unjustified, and, in the case of the Alton Sterling shooting, triggered by lousy tactics.
But it is premature at this point to pass judgment on the incidents, and it is certainly premature to ascribe racial motives to them. The resulting assassinations in Dallas show how dangerous the anti-cop narrative is. The media is playing with fire by peddling nonstop the false conceit that police officers are the biggest threat facing young black men today. In fact, the police could end all use of deadly force tomorrow (most of it triggered by armed, resisting suspects) and it would have a negligible effect on the black death-by-homicide rate.
TCR: You argue that black citizens who complain about police attention are acting contrary to their best interest since crime resides largely in poor minority neighborhoods. Please expound.
Mac Donald: Blacks are 23 percent of New York City’s population, but they commit 75 percent of all shootings and 70 percent of all robberies in the city, according to the victims of, and witnesses to, those shootings in their reports to the NYPD. Whites are 34 percent of the city’s population; they commit less than two percent of all shootings. The per capita shooting rate is 81 times higher in Brownsville than in Bay Ridge [two Brooklyn neighborhoods, the first largely black and the second largely white.]
Such crime disparities mean that the police cannot respond to where people are being shot, robbed, and otherwise victimized without operating more intensely in black neighborhoods. Of course the police must act wholly within the confines of the law and treat people with whom they interact with courtesy and respect.
TCR: Dallas Police Chief David Brown said, “…This must stop, this divisiveness between our police and our citizens.” Is an end to the divisiveness possible at this point, and how might it happen?
Mac Donald: The divisiveness will not end so long as there are so many institutions committed to racial victimology. Those institutions include the media, the universities, and large parts of the political establishment. The ongoing anti-cop violence at Black Lives Matter protests reveals that even assassinations of police officers do not dent the desire to demonize cops. It is time to start telling the truth about black crime, because only then will patterns of policing be understood.
TCR: The “elite” media, the Black Lives Matter movement and the liberal academy are the antagonists of your book. Explain their interplay.
Mac Donald: The liberal academy has spent decades promoting the idea that America remains endemically racist, even though there is not a single elite institution today that is not striving constantly to admit or hire as many underrepresented minorities as possible. College presidents, such as Harvard’s Drew Gilpin Faust, have amplified the Black Lives Matter falsehood that policing today is lethally biased.
The media trolls incessantly for instances of police officers shooting black males, ignoring the nearly 6,000 annual black homicide deaths that result from killings by black criminals. In fact, police shootings make up a larger proportion of white and Hispanic homicide deaths (12 percent) than black homicide deaths (four percent).
TCR: The arguments you make in the book are assuredly pro-cop. Is it wrong to regard your point of view as pro-incarceration, as well?
Mac Donald: I am pro protecting law-abiding individuals from victimization. If there were an alternative to incarceration that decreased criminal victimization to the same extent as incarceration, I would favor it, since prison is unquestionably a squalid, often spirit-killing affair.
But the Justice Department has found almost no programs to reduce recidivism that have any significant effect on criminal offending. Many of the community-based alternatives to incarceration that are currently being proposed were the norm in the 1960s and 1970s, and the crime rate exploded.
TCR: You argue that the notion of mass incarceration and systemic racial bias in our justice system are fallacies. Can you briefly explain how?
Mac Donald: Criminologists have spent decades trying to prove that the overrepresentation of blacks in prison is the result of criminal justice bias. They have failed to do so. In 1997, criminologists Robert Sampson and Janet Lauritsen reviewed the massive literature on charging and sentencing and concluded that the overwhelming evidence established that “large racial differences in criminal offending,” not racism, explained why more blacks were in prison proportionately than whites and for longer terms.
Michael Tonry reached the same conclusion in 1995: “Racial differences in patterns of offending, not racial bias by police and other officials, are the principal reason that such greater proportions of blacks than whites are arrested, prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned.” Those findings have not been contradicted since then.
TCR: Has the concept of behavioral correction failed in prisons? Is punishment the only point?
Mac Donald: All prisoners should work, in order to learn self-discipline and, ideally, a useful skill. Unfortunately, the logistics of moving large numbers of potentially violent inmates to work sites can be daunting but should be overcome nevertheless.
TCR: You point out that some high-profile figures on the right—Newt Gingrich, the Kochs–say they favor a reduction in the prison population. What’s your view of the policy landscape: Are they the outliers on this issue among conservatives or are you?
Mac Donald: There are some prominent conservatives who have publicly defended the contribution of incapacitation to this county’s 20-year crime decline, though they do not receive the media attention conferred on the Kochs or on Gingrich. My guess is that there is no widespread appetite among conservatives for radical de-incarceration.
TCR: A New York Times review of your book said you write with “an air of absolute rectitude.” Do you regard that as a compliment or a criticism?
TCR: You write favorably about Hawaii’s HOPE program and the concept of “swift and certain” (SAC) punishment, which has been praised by the NIJ and has been taken up by many states. Do you see SAC as a preferred route of criminal justice reform?
Mac Donald: It would be wonderful if SAC could be extended beyond its current focus on testing for substance abuse and other easily monitored parole violations. The challenges are enormous, however, of ensuring that big-city parole and probation departments immediately detect and uniformly sanction property crimes and violent felonies, especially when most departments already have thousands of warrant absconders on their books. Nevertheless, swift and certain sanctions should be the goal of the criminal justice system.
TCR: In terms of policing policy, you suggest that we’ve placed cities at crime peril by turning away from the good old days of Broken Windows and stop and frisk, which you credit in part for the historic crime decline. Can you briefly explain?
Mac Donald: Broken Windows policing responds to the heartfelt desire for public order on the part of residents of high-crime communities; it also can interrupt or deter more serious crimes, as a 2013 Brennan Center for Justice report showed. Stop and frisk intervenes as well in potentially criminal behavior, and it deters gun-carrying. Officers are now reluctant to engage in those discretionary forms of policing, however, having received the political message that low-level misdemeanor enforcement and pedestrian stops are racist.
Moreover, officers in urban areas now regularly find themselves surrounded by hostile, jeering crowds when they try to make an arrest or an investigatory stop. As a result, officers are backing off of proactive policing. Homicides rose 17 percent last year in the 56 largest cities, an almost unprecedented one-year spike; homicides in cities with large black populations rose between 54 percent and 90 percent. The only explanation for this crime spike that fits the data is what I have called the “Ferguson effect”—i.e., de-policing and the resulting emboldening of criminals.
TCR: And you believe police have gone into a fetal curl as a result of these critics and criticisms?
Mac Donald: Yes, and so does FBI Director James Comey, who has heard from officers across the country about their reluctance to engage in proactive policing. Comey has blamed the “chill wind” blowing through law enforcement for the current violent crime surge in cities with large black populations.
TCR: To quote Gilbert and Sullivan, “A policeman’s lot is not a happy one.” Why would anyone want to be a cop today? And is the occupation attracting the best and the brightest, under the circumstances?
Mac Donald: The chief of the Pasadena, Calif., police told me that the applicant pool for hiring has become the applicant “trickle” in the post-Ferguson age. Applicants who would have been automatically rejected a few years ago are now being considered; there is a huge risk that hiring standards will be lowered to fill vacancies left by early retirements.
TCR: Your book mixes ruminations about social policy with crime policy. You write that the breakdown of the African-American family structure ought to more explicitly cited for America’s crime problem. Did The Moynihan Report have it right 50 years ago?
Mac Donald: The Moynihan report was sadly prescient. Moynihan argued that the 23 percent out-of-wedlock birth rate then prevalent among blacks in 1965 would impede further racial progress. Today the black out-of-wedlock birth rate is 73 percent, and social science has confirmed the much higher risk of criminality facing children growing up in fatherless homes. There are of course many heroic single mothers raising law-abiding children, but the odds are incontestably against them.
TCR: You criticize Columbia University criminologist Jeffrey Fagan for his “social ecological” analysis of incarceration, which you say “treats prison like an outbreak of infectious disease that takes over certain communities, felling people on a seemingly random basis.” You respond, “This analysis elides the role of individual will.” So a kid who grows up on Fifth Avenue in New York has the same opportunities as a kid who grows up in Chicago’s Cabrini Green, Brooklyn’s Marcy Houses or the Magnolia Projects in New Orleans?
Mac Donald: Someone who grows up on Fifth Avenue obviously has magnitudes more opportunities than a resident of public housing. But being low-income does not force someone to commit drive-by shootings and other crimes. Numerous residents of poor communities lead law-abiding lives. The crime rate among Asian immigrant children is negligible, though their family’s income is often lower than that of most American children, including recipients of public housing and welfare. Few young inner-city gangbangers lack smartphones; so prevalent is the use of social media among gangbangers that prosecutors now rely on it construct criminal cases against them.
TCR: Broadly, what is the role of a police department in cities today, and has it evolved since the 1960s?
Mac Donald: Police departments should be preventing crime, not just responding to it. The idea that the police can actually lower crime was the essence of the Compstat revolution that began in the NYPD in 1994 and spread nationally. But officers are now reverting to a purely reactive style of policing under the barrage of calumny directed at them by Black Lives Matter activists and their political and media enablers.
TCR: Should the public be allowed to freely capture video images of police at work?
Mac Donald: Of course, so long as the filmer does not interfere with an investigation or arrest.
David J. Krajicek (@djkrajicek) writes about crime, justice and civil rights for The Crime Report, AlterNet, the New York Daily News, and others. Readers comments are welcome.