We Cannot Ignore the Reality of Police Misconduct

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In her recent interview with The Crime Report, conservative social commentator Heather Mac Donald levels another blast at critics of the police, especially anti-police misconduct protesters. Her arguments are at various points unfair, beside the point, and occasionally ludicrous.

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Samuel Walker

Mac Donald blames the media for encouraging the protests that have occurred all across the country over the past two years. As she told The Crime Report, “The media is playing with fire by peddling a false conceit that police officers are the biggest threat facing young black men today.”

Really? False conceit? Does she honestly believe that those thousands of protesters are all overdosed on MSNBC? Mac Donald simply refuses to accept the existence of systemic police misconduct and unjustified fatal shootings.

Anyone wondering where the protesters’ anger comes from need only read the Justice Department’s 2015 Findings report on Ferguson, Missouri.

It exposes a situation far worse than any one police shooting.

The City of Ferguson used the police department as a revenue source: “City officials routinely urge [Police] Chief Jackson to generate more revenue through enforcement.” The city’s priorities led many officers “to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.”

A palpable sense of oppression, in the true meaning of the word, emerges from the report, and it is not something MSNBC, CNN or the New York Times created.

Mac Donald also complains that media accounts of police abuse incidents, especially the videos, only tell part of the story, and that we should wait until all the evidence is in. It is indeed true that the videos do not always provide a complete account of what happened.

The fact is, however, that virtually all breaking news stories are incomplete, whether it is a terrorist attack in France or a high-level meeting in the White House.

What Mac Donald really wants is no coverage of alleged police misconduct incidents.

As a conservative, with an instinctive preference for order, Mac Donald does not like public protests, believing them destructive to a stable, orderly society. The unruly protests against police misconduct over the past two years, however, have been extremely constructive.

They prompted President Barack Obama to create the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, the first-ever such commission devoted exclusively to the police in our history. The Task Force’s Final Report reflects the best thinking about policing today and is an invaluable road map for improving the police and reducing racial tensions.

The protest also exposed the scandalous fact that we do not have an accurate account of the number of people shot and killed every year. The FBI’s purely voluntary system reports only about half of the total. We know that because the protests prompted the Washington Post to cast a broad net which found that the total is twice the figure reported by the FBI every year.

And for this tremendous contribution to public understanding of American policing, the Post won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting.

Mac Donald’s attacks on Black Lives Matter are completely unfair and, frankly, quite presumptuous. She accuses them of not addressing the issue of black-on-black homicide, which she sees as a far more serious problem than police shootings of African Americans.

Photo by Peter Burka via Flickr

Photo by Peter Burka via Flickr

It is indeed true that the murder of young African American men in the U.S. is an extremely serious problem. And most of those homicides are committed by other young African American men, and most of them do it with guns. And it is also true that all of our national experts on homicides, race relations, poverty, and related social conditions have shied away from systematically addressing the problem. (The blunt truth is that the uproar over the 1965 Moynihan Report has scared social scientists away from the issue for 50 years.)

But who is Heather Mac Donald to tell Black Lives Matter what its agenda should be? People from the Ford Foundation down to an ad hoc neighborhood group are free to choose their own issues. They may choose to focus on child poverty, voter registration, homicides, or police shootings, as they see fit.

Mac Donald’s presumptuous lecture to Black Lives Matter is part of her basic agenda: she wants all protest against police abuse to stop. And she wants the news media to stop covering it.

Her view of America suffers from two serious problems. First, she refuses to acknowledge the reality of police misconduct, including police shootings.

Second, she refuses to accept the historic role of public protest –yes, even angry protest—as one of the most powerful tools in the hands of citizens in a democratic society.

Samuel Walker is Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and the author of 14 books on policing, civil liberties and crime police. Readers’ comments are welcome.

2 thoughts on “We Cannot Ignore the Reality of Police Misconduct

  1. Once again, Samuel Walker has exposed basic, hard-to-hear truths about the institution of policing–and the failure of apologists to recognize these realities.

    There are, of course, wonderful police officers throughout the country: tough, competent crime-fighters who are also sensitive and empathetic, respectful of the Constitution, and of the citizens they’ve been hired to protect and serve. Cops who have no trouble understanding why many people of color harbor resentments toward their police. It does no one any good to deny police causation in our analyses of today’s community-police conflict.

    Professor Walker’s article should be required reading for cops, activists, policymakers, and academics, from across the ideological spectrum.

  2. I want to know when the Police have wrongfully shot and killed anybody and not been prosecuted for it. If they are a bunch of prejudice renegades who go to work with the intentions of killing black people, why are more black people stopped by Police but more white people shot and killed by them. The numbers don’t lie.

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