Heather Mac Donald, Imprimus, April 27, 2016
For almost two years, a protest movement known as “Black Lives Matter” has convulsed the nation. Triggered by the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, the Black Lives Matter movement holds that racist police officers are the greatest threat facing young black men today. This belief has triggered riots, “die-ins,” the murder and attempted murder of police officers, a campaign to eliminate traditional grand jury proceedings when police use lethal force, and a presidential task force on policing.
Even though the U.S. Justice Department has resoundingly disproven the lie that a pacific Michael Brown was shot in cold blood while trying to surrender, Brown is still venerated as a martyr. And now police officers are backing off of proactive policing in the face of the relentless venom directed at them on the street and in the media. As a result, violent crime is on the rise.
The need is urgent, therefore, to examine the Black Lives Matter movement’s central thesis–that police pose the greatest threat to young black men. I propose two counter hypotheses: first, that there is no government agency more dedicated to the idea that black lives matter than the police; and second, that we have been talking obsessively about alleged police racism over the last 20 years in order to avoid talking about a far larger problem–black-on-black crime.
Every year, approximately 6,000 blacks are murdered. This is a number greater than white and Hispanic homicide victims combined, even though blacks are only 13 percent of the national population. Blacks are killed at six times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined. In Los Angeles, blacks between the ages of 20 and 24 die at a rate 20 to 30 times the national mean. Who is killing them? Not the police, and not white civilians, but other blacks. The astronomical black death-by-homicide rate is a function of the black crime rate. Black males between the ages of 14 and 17 commit homicide at ten times the rate of white and Hispanic male teens combined. Blacks of all ages commit homicide at eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined, and at eleven times the rate of whites alone.
The police could end all lethal uses of force tomorrow and it would have at most a trivial effect on the black death-by-homicide rate. The nation’s police killed 987 civilians in 2015, according to a database compiled by The Washington Post. Whites were 50 percent–or 493–of those victims, and blacks were 26 percent–or 258. Most of those victims of police shootings, white and black, were armed or otherwise threatening the officer with potentially lethal force.
The black violent crime rate would actually predict that more than 26 percent of police victims would be black. Officer use of force will occur where the police interact most often with violent criminals, armed suspects, and those resisting arrest, and that is in black neighborhoods. In America’s 75 largest counties in 2009, for example, blacks constituted 62 percent of all robbery defendants, 57 percent of all murder defendants, 45 percent of all assault defendants–but only 15 percent of the population.
Moreover, 40 percent of all cop killers have been black over the last decade. And a larger proportion of white and Hispanic homicide deaths are a result of police killings than black homicide deaths–but don’t expect to hear that from the media or from the political enablers of the Black Lives Matter movement. Twelve percent of all white and Hispanic homicide victims are killed by police officers, compared to four percent of all black homicide victims. If we’re going to have a “Lives Matter” anti-police movement, it would be more appropriately named “White and Hispanic Lives Matter.”
Standard anti-cop ideology, whether emanating from the ACLU or the academy, holds that law enforcement actions are racist if they don’t mirror population data. New York City illustrates why that expectation is so misguided. Blacks make up 23 percent of New York City’s population, but they commit 75 percent of all shootings, 70 percent of all robberies, and 66 percent of all violent crime, according to victims and witnesses. Add Hispanic shootings and you account for 98 percent of all illegal gunfire in the city. Whites are 33 percent of the city’s population, but they commit fewer than two percent of all shootings, four percent of all robberies, and five percent of all violent crime. These disparities mean that virtually every time the police in New York are called out on a gun run–meaning that someone has just been shot–they are being summoned to minority neighborhoods looking for minority suspects.
Officers hope against hope that they will receive descriptions of white shooting suspects, but it almost never happens. This incidence of crime means that innocent black men have a much higher chance than innocent white men of being stopped by the police because they match the description of a suspect. This is not something the police choose. It is a reality forced on them by the facts of crime.
Police operating in inner-city neighborhoods now find themselves routinely surrounded by cursing, jeering crowds when they make a pedestrian stop or try to arrest a suspect. Sometimes bottles and rocks are thrown. Bystanders stick cell phones in the officers’ faces, daring them to proceed with their duties. Officers are worried about becoming the next racist cop of the week and possibly losing their livelihood thanks to an incomplete cell phone video that inevitably fails to show the antecedents to their use of force. Officer use of force is never pretty, but the public is clueless about how hard it is to subdue a suspect who is determined to resist arrest.
Unfortunately, when officers back off in high crime neighborhoods, crime shoots through the roof. Our country is in the midst of the first sustained violent crime spike in two decades. Murders rose nearly 17 percent in the nation’s 50 largest cities in 2015, and it was in cities with large black populations where the violence increased the most. Baltimore’s per capita homicide rate last year was the highest in its history. Milwaukee had its deadliest year in a decade, with a 72 percent increase in homicides. Homicides in Cleveland increased 90 percent over the previous year. Murders rose 83 percent in Nashville, 54 percent in Washington, D.C., and 61 percent in Minneapolis. In Chicago, where pedestrian stops are down by 90 percent, shootings were up 80 percent through March 2016.
I first identified the increase in violent crime in May 2015 and dubbed it “the Ferguson effect.” My diagnosis set off a firestorm of controversy on the anti-cop Left and in criminology circles. Despite that furor, FBI Director James Comey confirmed the Ferguson effect in a speech at the University of Chicago Law School last October. Comey decried the “chill wind” that had been blowing through law enforcement over the previous year, and attributed the sharp rise in homicides and shootings to the campaign against cops. Several days later, President Obama had the temerity to rebuke Comey, accusing him (while leaving him unnamed) of “cherry-pick[ing] data” and using “anecdotal evidence to drive policy [and] feed political agendas.” The idea that President Obama knows more about crime and policing than his FBI director is of course ludicrous. But the President thought it necessary to take Comey down, because to recognize the connection between proactive policing and public safety undermines the entire premise of the anti-cop Left: that the police oppress minority communities rather than bring them surcease from disorder.
As crime rates continue to rise, the overwhelming majority of victims are, as usual, black–as are their assailants. But police officers are coming under attack as well. In August 2015, an officer in Birmingham, Alabama, was beaten unconscious by a convicted felon after a car stop. The suspect had grabbed the officer’s gun, as Michael Brown had tried to do in Ferguson, but the officer hesitated to use force against him for fear of being charged with racism. Such incidents will likely multiply as the media continues to amplify the Black Lives Matter activists’ poisonous slander against the nation’s police forces.
The number of police officers killed in shootings more than doubled during the first three months of 2016. In fact, officers are at much greater risk from blacks than unarmed blacks are from the police. Over the last decade, an officer’s chance of getting killed by a black has been 18.5 times higher than the chance of an unarmed black getting killed by a cop.
The favorite conceit of the Black Lives Matter movement is, of course, the racist white officer gunning down a black man. According to available studies, it is a canard. A March 2015 Justice Department report on the Philadelphia Police Department found that black and Hispanic officers were much more likely than white officers to shoot blacks based on “threat misperception,” i.e., the incorrect belief that a civilian is armed. A study by University of Pennsylvania criminologist Greg Ridgeway, formerly acting director of the National Institute of Justice, has found that black officers in the NYPD were 3.3 times more likely to fire their weapons at shooting scenes than other officers present. The April 2015 death of drug dealer Freddie Gray in Baltimore has been slotted into the Black Lives Matter master narrative, even though the three most consequential officers in Gray’s arrest and transport are black. There is no evidence that a white drug dealer in Gray’s circumstances, with a similar history of faking injuries, would have been treated any differently.