When news of the Milwaukee police shooting and the ensuing riots broke earlier this month, it’s safe to say I watched the news more intently than most. I’m a former beat cop who worked the some of the worst neighborhoods in a large Midwestern city. If America’s having an ongoing debate about the police response to inner city crime, well, it’s a subject where I have a lot of first-hand knowledge.
Aside from a few years as cop, I have worked in law enforcement my whole adult life, in one way or another. In the Army, instead of counterintelligence, I was accidentally assigned to a criminal investigation team. (It turns out that in the Army both are abbreviated “CI.”) That investigation involved looking into a new bunch of suspected terrorists detained at Guantanamo Bay. I worked with those agents for 10 years as a criminal intelligence analyst. I have been a criminal intelligence analyst since then, and I provide training for criminal investigators today.
I am also a “law and order” kind of guy, and while I agree that government is wasteful and often uses force capriciously, I also believe police need a few armored vehicles and SWAT teams. But I see the abuses and the errors, and I know how painful police mistakes are to the fabric of our nation.
But when I first started to tackle Heather Mac Donald’s latest book, which at 233 pages shouldn’t require a running start, I was too busy rolling my eyes over the title. The War on Cops:How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe seems like hyperbole at a time when nuance and thoughtfulness is desperately needed in the debate over criminal justice reform and allegations of police brutality. I was worried this was going to be the same kind of breathlessness, only from the police point of view. We’ve already had enough mania resulting from Black Lives Matter rhetoric.
The original “Ferguson Effect” was supposed to be attacks on police everywhere, and for months that never happened. Instances of police being killed were actually dropping. But then Baltimore protests over the death of Freddy Grey turned into rioting; then Baton Rouge, Dallas, Minneapolis, and now Milwaukee. I began to realize this wasn’t hyperbole.
Mac Donald’s book starts with Ferguson. The Ferguson incident brought the issues of police racism and brutality to the forefront, and gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement. It is, unquestionably, the most divisive environment American law enforcement has seen since the Rodney King incident in California in 1991. The current environment may be worse, as the Rodney King issue was often framed as a California problem. The riots after the police officers were acquitted in the King case were severe, but they were limited to Los Angeles. Now, 25 years later, every city seems to be capable of bursting into flames as soon as a police officer fires a weapon.
We must remember, though, that Ferguson is a massively important milestone in criminal justice reform, but not for the reasons that most people understand. Ferguson was, and continues to be, mostly ignorant myth and deliberate deception. Every credible assessment of the shooting that prompted the rioting found it was justified.
That’s not to say that the incident shouldn’t prompt some soul-searching from law enforcement. The Justice Department review of the Ferguson Police Department found a disturbing trend: not of random executions of unarmed teenagers, but of a systematic fleecing of the people of Ferguson by their own police department. Policing was used by the city’s political leadership as an important source of revenue generation. Unsurprisingly, a reflexively liberal media did not seize upon political corruption and excessive taxation as important contributors to the violence and tensions between police and poor urban communities.
This is an important theme that runs though Mac Donald’s book. There are major issues within American policing. We are in desperate need of significant reforms of our criminal justice system. But, as Mac Donalds’s book shows with clear prose, credible data, and statistical analysis, the problems are often not what we see reported in in traditional news media. We are not having a useful debate about policing, because we are talking about the wrong things, and in many cases, we are debating the finer points of completely imaginary environments.
Mac Donald’s data helps cut through the haze of poorly written headlines, social media outrage, and sensationalized cable news coverage. The effect of this, however, is a bit like Alice down the rabbit hole. It is distressing to see that much of what passes for debate and discussion about criminal justice reform, police brutality, and the racism of our criminal justice system is simply not addressing reality.
Once she establishes the wrongness of the initial Michael Brown “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative, andshe demonstrates how the U.S. attorney general and President Obama callously exploited it. This helped set the stage for Baltimore.
Since the publication of The War on Cops, prosecution of the police officers accused of being either directly involved or potentially negligent in the death of Freddy Grey have collapsed. Mac Donald discusses the Baltimore riots at length, and notes especially the contrived, almost scripted nature of how the riots played out.
City leadership’s orders to essentially let the riots go on reinforce this point. It seems that any opportunity to let a city burn is abated by a news media that cheerfully parrots Black Lives Matter talking points, while politicians who have been capitalizing on the plight of African Americans gravely condemn the actions of police they command before the crime scene has even been processed.
The Virulent Strain of Libertarianism
Part two of Mac Donald’s book, subtitled “Handcuffing the Cops,” builds on the theme that much of what we think we understand about policing and the debate about criminal justice reform is based on so few facts that we are missing the point completely. She begins a litany of other criminal justice issues, refutes the conventional (or at least popular) wisdom, and manages to get in solid blows against narratives of both social justice warriors and the more anti-cop libertarians.
Maybe the social justice warriors are a lost cause, but I hope libertarians are at least receptive to some of what Mac Donald has to say. I know most libertarians don’t think of themselves as anti-cop. Some are very thoughtful about the massive power we give flawed people and systems, which I understand and appreciate a great deal.
But libertarians also need to be cautious about encouraging a strain that hates the concept of any authority, law, or police. Libertarians have some of the best ideas about criminal justice reform out there and are right to worry about the excess militarization of police. But at times they seem a bit too ambivalent about the reality that we will always need people with guns on patrol.
As for the Justice Department’s new rules regarding citizen complaints against the police, Mac Donald argues they are mostly a power grab. Complaints and lawsuits about stop and frisk in New York City, Mac Donald argues, have only left people in the poorest, most dangerous neighborhoods more at risk as police are further restricted from being proactive.
A Criminal Disconnect
Part three lays out a series of anecdotes, chiefly designed to refute sociologist and TED-talker Alice Goffman’s book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Part three is subtitled “The Truth about Crime,” and I expected more data here. This section, while a scathing retort to Goffman’s book, seems out of place for anyone, like myself, who had never heard of Goffman or her book. Goffman, Mac Donald claims, is endemic of a white, liberal class of sociologists who place blame for crime entirely on police and the courts.
I have not read Goffman’s book, so I cannot evaluate the strength or weakness of her research or arguments. It is worth noting that Goffman has been accused of getting so close to the subjects of her study in criminal justice that, among other things, she may have driven the getaway car in a murder plot.
I can certainly vouch for a serious disconnect between the realities of crime and the world of some criminologists and sociologists. There is a trend of empathetic, well-meaning people who can’t seem to remember the pain, danger, and fear criminals cause once they have met some of those criminals and found out criminals have experienced pain, danger, and fear themselves. They mistake empathy for tolerance, and slide into weakness.
There is a simple antidote for this: Talk to victims and survivors of crime. Since the vast majority of victims never turn to violence, theft, or drugs, I don’t find pain and hardship quite the excuse that many sympathizers with criminals do.
The Marijuana Myth
Part four focuses on prisons, and some of the misconceptions about “mass incarceration” and the perceived benefits of decriminalization of some, or all, illegal drugs. I found this section very interesting, as I do not normally read or think much about the penal system. The biggest revelation in this section, which is hard to refute thanks to the data, is the fantasy that there are significant numbers of people in jail simply because of drug possession, especially marijuana possession.
In reality, most people in prison are there for violence. Certainly, some of that violence is associated with drug trafficking, which some will say is an argument for de-criminalization. Some of that violence is committed while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, which some will say is an argument for treatment-based responses. But we must not believe our prisons will empty and the criminal underclass will be liberated from the tyranny of the police if we just decriminalize marijuana.
Mac Donald notes clearly this would have a minor, possibly negligible impact on our prisons. We can academically debate the merits of decriminalization of marijuana. I believe we should be experimenting with decriminalization and legalization, and I am happy to see various programs being tried. In my experience in law enforcement, I never had to fight a guy who had been smoking marijuana, but I had to fight a lot of people who had been drinking. Maybe that’s not a scientific survey, but I’m open to the argument that marijuana could be part of an orderly society.
That being said, I would like to send an additional 100,000 cops into the streets to smash heroin, meth, and cocaine dealers. If that didn’t work, I’d send another 100,000. I don’t have any sympathy or mercy for dealing hard drugs.
The Cycle Repeats Itself
If nothing else, Mac Donald’s book is a good reminder that we need more data in our debates about criminal justice reform. We need more evidence, and more rational thought. Black Lives Matter activists scream that young, black men are being executed in the streets, but this just is not true. This irrationality is getting worse, not better, and time is making this hysteria more prevalent, not less.
The recent rioting in Milwaukee has turned this into a farce after a black police officer killed an armed black man. It seems no pretense or distortion is needed to justify a riot anymore. There’s no need to even concoct the fantasy of Mike Brown surrendering and then being executed for no reason by a racist white cop.
The tragedy is that these demonstrably false impressions feed fear and irrational actions that put people in danger. Black Americans have been told that police execute them for no reason, so of course they run from and fight with police. Running and fighting only increases the chances for violence, and the cycle repeats itself.
The unavoidable reality is this: The police are the only part of the government that is authorized to kill Americans on the spot, and make the decision to kill in an instant. This is not true of Special Forces, the CIA, the NSA, NASA, Congress, the president, the IRS, the Department of the Interior, Exterior, or somewhere in between.
They are also the people called to respond to every single problem in poor, mostly minority communities. Noise complaint? Cops. Kids hanging out on the corner? Cops. Someone is hungry or drunk? Cops. Your kids won’t obey you? Cops. Your cousin is suicidal? Cops. Your neighbor is schizophrenic? Cops. Your landlord is a jerk? Cops. After all the rhetoric and nonsense, poor, urban neighborhoods call for police services more than anywhere else.
I don’t know if this is evidence that the Black Lives Matter movement is totally disconnected from normal urban culture, or if this is evidence of an astounding lack of self-awareness. Remember that the defining quality of the role of police, versus all other social and governmental support, is that they are expected to be obeyed or they can, will, and often are required to use force. Police are government power in its plainest form.
This is a concept called “The law of the instrument,” coined by Abraham Maslow to describe the over-reliance on familiar tools. “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Maslow said. For our social decline in the inner city, all we have is police, and we are amazed that everyone has started to look like a criminal to them.