Last week in the Wall Street Journal, Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute posited that we are in the throes of a “new nationwide crime wave.” She blamed the chorus of police reform advocates and critics of police brutality since the Ferguson protest last summer. She claimed the criticism and efforts to hold police accountable were causing cops to become disillusioned, cynical, and afraid to do their jobs.
Mac Donald’s piece itself was incredibly cynical. It tied into a growing backlash against police reform from law enforcement groups, police unions, and the law-and-order crowd, and has circulated widely among those groups. Implicit in her argument is the idea that the average police officer is incapable of doing his job properly if other police officers are getting criticized, rebuked, or held accountable for misconduct. It’s hard to think of another profession in which holding bad actors accountable evokes such mass anger and resentment among others who do the same job — not even in the military, where war zone soldiers face much more of a day to day threat than your average cop.
It also ignored a lot of the larger issues to come out of Ferguson and Baltimore, issues that went well beyond the behavior and performance of individual cops, such as the way St. Louis County municipalities soak their residents to fund the county’s astonishingly large population of local fiefdoms, or Baltimore’s troubled racial history, or the city’s 2000s policy of mass arrests as a means of social control and the damage done by giving poor people an arrest record when they’ve committed no crime.
But over at the NY Daily News, Franklin Zimring explains why Mac Donald’s central premise — that we’re on the brink of a new crime wave — is also way off base.
Mac Donald’s recital of frightening statistics plays special attention to the problems in New York City and Los Angeles, America’s two largest cities and most prominent urban success stories in crime reduction in the past two decades. Bill Bratton, now in his second stint in New York, has served as commissioner of both departments.
We are told shootings are up in both Los Angeles and New York, and that “the most plausible explanation of the current surge in lawlessness is the intense agitation against American police departments over the past nine months.”
Is there a nationwide crime wave? On current evidence, probably not, and a careful analysis of official statistics in New York and Los Angeles provides reason for reassurance rather than alarm.
Zimring starts with New York.
Let’s start with the uptick in violence in New York City. The most recent official crime statistics indicate that so far in 2015, the city has experienced significant declines from 2014’s ultra-low levels in burglary, robbery and larceny. At the same time, total homicides for the first five months of the year at 135 are higher than in 2014 — but quite close to the pace of 2013 and around 30% lower than in 2010.
At their current rate, killings in New York City would end 2015 as either the third or fourth lowest year in the city’s modern history.
This is similar to the posturing we see about the killing of police officers (more on that in a minute.) Crime stats can’t just keep falling forever. And in places like New York, crime rates have reached astonishing depths. Inching back upward — to levels that would be historic lows just a few years ago — isn’t indicative of a coming national crime wave. It may just be statistical noise, or a leveling off. And as Zimring points out, the rate of some crimes is actually still falling in New York. As Zimring writes, “[I]f [the “Ferguson Effect"] has indeed increased the New York homicide total, should it also get credit for the 223 fewer robberies so far in 2015 when compared to the previous year? How about the 974 fewer burglaries in five months?”
Zimring also notes that despite Mac Donald’s fears about Los Angeles, homicides in that city are actually down from 2015.
Mac Donald’s points about violence against cops are also misguided. For example, she writes that the killings of “Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., in July 2014, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014 and Freddie Gray in Baltimore last month—have led to riots, violent protests and attacks on the police.” She then adds, “Murders of officers jumped 89% in 2014, to 51 from 27.”
But that jump in 2014 was after a historic low in 2013. That low came after a 20-year decline in homicides of police officers. Even the 2014 figure is 51 murders of cops out of a police force of 600,000 to 800,000 (depending on what source you’re consulting). In terms of raw data (compiled from the FBI and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund), it’s still the sixth safest year for cops since the 1950s, and below the average over the last 10 years, a period in which the number each year trended downward. If you look at the rate of murder of cops, the relative safety of cops today is even more impressive.
But Mac Donald is also sly with her cutoff points. She cites the increase in homicides of cops from 2014 over 2013 to support her contention that the reaction to the deaths of Brown, Garner, and Gray are driving violence against police. But while there were a couple smaller protests in July shortly after Garner was killed, the protests didn’t really heat up until December, after a grand jury declined to indict the cop that killed him. It was during the December protests that police and law-and-order pundits began to complain about the anti-police rhetoric. It’s hard to blame protests held in December 2014 for an increase in killings of police that took place over the course of the entire year. Mac Donald also mentions the Freddie Gray protests. But Gray was killed this year, not last year. It’s misleading to cite either of these cases for an increase in police fatalities in 2014.
The Ferguson protests of course did occur in 2014, in August. But if those protests were indeed why the police fatality figures went up last year, then we should have seen a surge in police killings in response to them. If the homicides of cops in 2014 had been disbursed evenly over the course of the year, we’d have expected to see about 21 killings of cops from August 9th through the end of the year. Yet of the 51 murders of police officers last year, just 19 occurred after the death of Michael Brown on August 9th. Of course, crime isn’t evenly distributed over the course of the year. But if Mac Donald is right, we should have seen at least a bump in killings of cops after August 9th. That just didn’t happen.
By Mac Donald’s reasoning, we should also be seeing a continuation of last year’s upward trend in murders of police. But homicides of cops are down so far this year. As of today, the number of cops murdered by firearms in 2015 is down 27 percent from last year.
The argument Mac Donald is making today is the same argument many were making in 2011, when there was also a slight uptick in homicides of cops. Critics then warned that “anti-police” and “anti-government” sentiment was making cops afraid to do their jobs, and that efforts to hold rogue cops more accountable were empowering criminals. The next year, we saw the second lowest number of murders of cops to date. The year after, we saw a record low.
It’s worth noting that assaults on police officers are also trending downward. The general drop in officer fatalities is almost certainly do in part to better equipment like bulletproof vests, and other technological advances, like better emergency medical care. But that assaults are also in decline cuts against Mac Donald’s argument. Even as developments like citizen-shot video give rise to more skepticism and criticism of police, that skepticism and cynicism is playing out in the form of protest, activism, and calls for reform, not violence. The murder of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos last year was awful and horrific. But what data we have strongly suggests it was an anomaly, and not part of some larger trend of anti-cop violence driven by police critics and anti-brutality protests.
Mac Donald’s argument also relies on the assumption that successful crime control is only achieved through “broken windows” policing, dehumanizing polices like stop-and-frisk, and giving cops wide latitude when it comes to using force. There are enough studies out there on these policies to find impressive-sounding support for whatever position you want to take on them. But in a free society, we should want the police to employ the least amount of force to achieve the best possible results. Or to put it another way, if we see similar drops in crime with aggressive policing that we see with more community-oriented policing, we should opt for the less aggressive, more community-oriented methods. And in places like Richmond, Virginia; Nashville, Tennessee; and Dallas, Texas.
It is true that we’re seeing an awful surge in murders in St. Louis and Baltimore right now. Mac Donald blames this on police reform activists by claiming their rhetoric both emboldens criminals and makes cops either afraid or unwilling to do their jobs. On the first point, the implication seems to be that people should just keep quiet in the face of what they perceive to be brutality and injustice, lest it embolden violence against the police. As I and others have documented, the protests in St. Louis were about much, much more than Michael Brown. That’s true in Baltimore too, but there the instigating incident also appears to have been much more egregious and unjustifiable than the one in St. Louis. In any case, even assuming this were true, it’s basically an instruction to the residents of these cities to live with one of two evils: Either live with harassment and abuse from the police, or live in fear of crime. (Or there is no choice at all — you live with both.) Surely we can do better than that.
The second point is more alarming. If police in Baltimore and St. Louis are letting protesters and critics make them too afraid or spiteful to do their jobs, essentially turning their backs to allow people to be robbed and killed, that isn’t a problem with protester or social justice culture, it’s a problem with police culture. One would hope that a conscientious cop would be encouraged by the indictment of a bunch of cops for giving allegedly giving a man an illegal, extra-judicial punishment that resulted in his death. Getting bad cops, law-breaking cops off the street is after all a boon to law and order, not to mention to the reputation of cops who do it right. Instead, we’re told by law enforcement groups and their advocates that your average, well-intentioned cop is so outraged by these indictments that he’s refusing to do his job. Or, more ridiculous still, that even the good cops are hesitating to protect people out of some fear that they’ll be publicly criticized by racial justice groups. For a profession that takes such pride in its bravery, police advocates make cops seem remarkably thin-skinned.
This same pride in the bravery of police officers is also frequently invoked as a reason why we should give cops the benefit of the doubt, and allow them more room to use more force. Because they’re courageous, we shouldn’t second-guess them. But which takes more courage: Shooting a suspect dead from 20 feet away because he’s holding a knife or a screwdriver, or putting yourself at risk to disarm a suspect without discharging your gun?
So what is causing the surge of murders in Baltimore and St. Louis? Perhaps Mac Donald is right that in those cities in particular, anger against police brutality is spilling over into violence. I haven’t seen convincing evidence to prove or disprove the point. But here’s another possibility: In the meticulously researched book American Homicide, historian and sociologist Randolph Roth argues that historically, that two of the factors that cause homicides to soar in American cities are a sense of a loss of government legitimacy, and a loss of a feeling of belonging among outcast or historically oppressed groups. That would certainly seem to be the case in both St. Louis and Baltimore. These are difficult things to quantify, but so is Mac Donald’s insinuation that criticizing cops for alleged brutality makes people want to murder them.
Ultimately, arguments like Mac Donald’s are aimed at exploiting fear of crime to shame people who dare to speak up about police abuse — or at least to shunt them to the fringe of the public discourse. But as Zimring points out, stoking up fears about crime based on questionable data has in the past had some devastating consequences.
One historical footnote to last week’s crime wave prediction may put Mac Donald’s alarmism in perspective: The same Manhattan Institute that employs her also published a warning by John Dilulio in 1996 that the United States would produce approximately 270,000 more juvenile super-predators by 2010. It’s title: “How to stop the coming crime wave.”
That famously predicted crime wave never happened. But last week’s revival of dire predictions suggests that the Manhattan Institute has a long-standing tendency to view crime trends with alarm for political effect.
Not only did that crime wave never happen, but the U.S. entered into its longest sustained drop in violent crime on record. (Dilulio has since admitted that he was mistaken.) The “super predator” panic unleashed a number of draconian sentencing laws that put young kids away for long sentences by treating them as adults in the court system. It did irreparable harm to a generation of mostly black, low-income communities.
Fear of crime is a powerful political motivator. This makes it all the more important to point out when pundits attempt to influence a political debate by using specious data to exploit that fear. There’s some data suggesting that the 20-year decline in violent crime may have hit bottom. In a country of 380 million people, you aren’t going to reduce crime to zero. In some cities, there have been some recent increases in some crimes, just as there were all throughout the crime drop. But the evidence that we’re on the brink of some national crime wave is about as convincing as the evidence 20 years ago that juvenile super predators were about to terrorize American cities.
Perhaps when the crime stats come out for this year, we’ll see that Mac Donald was right. Then we can have a conversation about what caused the increase and what to do about it. But until there’s some real data to back up her contention, this just another interference on a long overdue discussion on the relationship between police and the communities they serve.