The Racial Reality of Policing

Edward Conlon, Wall Street Journal, September 4, 2015

It was one of the more effective training exercises that I saw during my years in the New York Police Department.

The instructor would call up four cops, two black and two white, to the front of the class. He’d have one of the black cops face the wall with his hands up and place the two white cops close behind him, on either side, pretending to point guns at him.

The instructor would then ask the class, “Whadda we got?”

Everyone knew the answer: an arrest or a stop.

Then the instructor would switch the positions, arranging two black cops behind one of the whites. This time, white hands were raised in surrender, and black hands mimicked guns.

“Now whadda we got?”

Everyone knew the answer to that one too, though not many wanted to say it, as uneasy laughter filled the room. Cops of every color seemed to react the same way: The second scenario looked like a mugging.

It was a lesson in the ugliness of preconceptions, the peril of jumping to conclusions. I thought a lot about that exercise in 2009, when a black NYPD cop named Omar Edwardswas killed by a fellow officer. Edwards, who had finished his shift and wasn’t in uniform, was shot when he drew his gun and chased a man who had broken into his car.

Outside the classroom, however, on our beats in Brooklyn and the Bronx, the script of that training exercise didn’t get flipped very often. It was seldom a white guy on the wall. The NYPD is fairly diverse; gun violence in New York is largely segregated.

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It’s not up to me to decide what activists should protest, but after years of dealing with the realities of street violence, I don’t understand how a movement called “Black Lives Matter” can ignore the leading cause of death among young black men in the U.S., which is homicide by their peers.

In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted 129 instances of black men killed by “legal intervention”–that is to say, by cops. The figure is incomplete because of a lack of national reporting requirements, and it says nothing about the circumstances of the killings or the race of the officers involved. But it gives a sense of the scope of the problem.

By contrast, in that same year, 6,739 black men were murdered, overwhelmingly by young men like themselves. Since 2001, even as rates of violent crime have dropped dramatically, more than 90,000 black men in the U.S. have been killed by other black men. With fatalities on this scale, the term epidemic is not a metaphor. Every year, the casualty count of black-on-black crime is twice that of the death toll of 9/11.

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For most cops and their supporters, the rising homicide rate over the past year–surging in Baltimore and St. Louis, creeping up in New York and elsewhere–is the inevitable result of demoralized police departments. The price of rage can be calculated in the number of cops who have been targeted and shot–most notoriously, NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos last December and, just last week, Deputy Darren Goforth in Texas.

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Twenty years ago, when I first walked a beat in the housing projects of the South Bronx, the greatest and most gratifying revelation was that most people wanted me there. The writer James Baldwin may have seen the police as an “army of occupation” in Harlem, but that wasn’t the case across the river. The ranks of those who always seemed glad to see me (church ladies, the elderly, many working people) were larger than those who never were (the young men loitering on the corners and in the lobbies). For the rest, the relationship was as ambivalent as it is in policing white middle-class neighborhoods: Cops are wonderful when we find your lost kid, and we’re jerks when we write you traffic tickets.

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Most of my career was spent as a detective in the 44th Precinct of the Bronx. Though crime fell precipitously during those years, robberies, stabbings, shootings and homicides were routine events. Gang conflicts and the drug trade were behind much of the bloodshed, but the largest number of violent incidents were classified, tepidly, as “disputes,” a word as good as any when words failed to explain them.

In one 24-hour period, we had a man shot multiple times by two strangers who didn’t like how he looked at them. We had another man shot in the penis after drunkenly needling a friend that he was too chicken to use his gun. A third man inadvertently spit into the window of a passing cab. The passenger had the driver pull over and stabbed the spitter, nearly fatally, before getting back in the cab to go about his business.

Though thuggish acts like these weren’t representative of the neighborhood, too often they defined it, for locals as well as for outsiders. The area is overwhelmingly black and Latino, but it isn’t a place of monochromatic and monolithic poverty. Most people work, and many live in decent housing. There are growing populations of African, Caribbean and Central American immigrants who came from far meaner streets than the ones where they now live. Because the goals of public safety were so widely shared, the day-to-day frustrations of detective work and the substantial failure of the criminal justice system were all the more difficult to bear.

No cop I worked with would disagree with the protesters’ chant that black lives matter. I spent a substantial part of my career begging black kids to tell me who shot them. Often, they wouldn’t. When they were killed, there was no guarantee that their friends and family would tell me what had happened, let alone agree to testify in court. And the enormous effort undertaken to get as far as an arrest–knocking on countless doors, calming and cajoling fearful witnesses–was often labor in vain.

Simply put, the Bronx is an excellent place to kill someone. While your odds of getting caught are slightly better than even, the chances of beating the rap are in your favor. The conviction rate for felonies in the Bronx is the lowest in the city, by far. When a criminal justice system delivers justice for only one murder in four, it really ought to be called something else.

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When I hear about the “nonviolent drug offenders” doing time, I can’t help wondering how many of them have a shooting or three they got a pass on. There may be a growing consensus that too many men are in prison in America today, but I know that not enough from the Bronx are there. The system is broken in more ways than one.

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