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Bad Cops, Bad Narratives

Racial bias in policing is real. But the full picture is far more complex.
April 27, 2021
Bad Cops, Bad Narratives
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 01: Demonstrators kneel in front of law enforcement during a protest on June 1, 2020 in downtown Washington, DC. Protests and riots continue in cities across America following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin, 44, was charged last Friday with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.. (Photo by Drew Angerer / Getty)

Despite many loud voices on the right questioning or even deploring Minneapolis ex-cop Derek Chauvin’s murder conviction last week for the death of George Floyd, the trial’s outcome has been met with a remarkably bipartisan degree of public approval: In an online USA Today/Ipsos poll conducted just after the verdict was announced, 71 percent of the respondents in the weighted sample said they believe the guilty verdict was correct, while only 13 percent thought it was not. Even among Republicans, only 23 percent said they flat-out rejected the result; cries of “mob rule” from the likes of Scott Adams and Matt Walsh may have gotten their share of Twitter likes but seem to have had little broader impact.

But in the aftermath of the Chauvin trial, plenty of wrongheaded or plainly irresponsible rhetoric about policing and justice has been voiced by the progressive left—some of which may both hinder good law enforcement and make it harder to reform the bad.

Given the devastating video that showed a white police officer crushing the life out of a black man for nine minutes—and the long history of anti-black racism in American law enforcement—it’s more than understandable that visceral reactions to the story of George Floyd’s death focused on race. But the continued insistence on framing it exclusively in racial terms, as both progressive commentators and prominent Democrats have done, risks obscuring important facts. It’s not even clear, for instance, whether Chauvin was a racist cop or an equal-opportunity abuser, a bully with a badge. While several of the previous instances when he reportedly used excessive force involved non-white arrestees, some did involve whites—like the case of a suburban mother who got pulled over and roughly yanked out of her vehicle while her 2-month-old baby cried, with no explanation ultimately given.

Nonetheless, the progressive party line remains that Floyd was killed because of his skin color—a view encapsulated in a post-verdict tweet from California Gov. Gavin Newsom:

A number of replies to Newsom’s tweet brought up the case of Tony Timpa, the white Dallas man who died of a cardiac arrest in police custody in 2016. Timpa, who had called 911 for help during a psychotic episode, was restrained on his stomach for about fifteen minutes, during which he repeatedly wailed, “You’re gonna kill me!” The cops involved were apparently never punished—one has retired, four are still on the force—and the family’s civil suit was dismissed in January under the “qualified immunity” doctrine.

Another white man, Donald Lewis, died in Florida in 2005 after he was detained by West Palm Beach police officers while wandering disoriented along a highway. Like Timpa, Lewis was hogtied and held face down; at least two cops at different times knelt on his neck and back. Again, no charges were brought, and an excessive-force lawsuit by Lewis’s mother was dismissed.

While such episodes are thankfully rare, they do point to a bigger problem. Some police officers can be appallingly callous toward people they perceive as worthless: lawbreakers, drug addicts, the mentally ill. (I recently wrote about some disturbing conversations with someone who defended this attitude.) What’s more, police departments and courts routinely fail to hold officers accountable for behavior that exhibits a “depraved mind”—to quote one of the statutes under which Chauvin was convicted—with regard to human life, or for less extreme but clearly abusive behavior.

Race and racism can certainly be a part of this pattern. But they don’t explain all of it.

What role race plays in police abuse and police killings in twenty-first-century America is a hugely complicated question that a number of researchers have attempted to tackle. In a 2015 Justice Department survey, blacks who had been subjects of street stops were much less likely than whites (59 percent vs. 89 percent) to say that the police behaved appropriately. While black (and, to a lesser extent, Hispanic) Americans are killed by police at higher rates than whites—“black men are about 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police over the life course than are white men,” according to an analysis of data from 2013-18—this gap primarily reflects disparities in the rate of arrests and in actual crime rates. According to a 2016 study by Harvard economist Roland Fryer, “there are racial differences—sometimes quite large—in police use of force”: “Even when officers report civilians have been compliant and no arrest was made, blacks are 21.2 percent more likely to endure some form of force in an interaction.” But those differences do not extend to shootings:

On the most extreme use of force—officer-involved shootings—we are unable to detect any racial differences in either the raw data or when accounting for controls.

Looking at these and other studies, the overall picture certainly doesn’t add up to “no evidence of widespread racial bias,” as a Wall Street Journal headline summed up a somewhat more nuanced argument by conservative author Heather Mac Donald. But it does suggest something far more complex than Minnesota Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib’s assertion on Twitter that “policing in our country is inherently [and] intentionally racist.”

Yet sweeping assertions of this kind have become routine. Appearing on CBS News after the Chauvin verdict, New York Times journalist and 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones discussed the currently popular idea that modern American policing evolved from slave patrols and remarked, “It’s difficult to reform an institution that, in many ways, is doing the exact function that it was created to do”—i.e., keeps blacks under the white supremacist boot.

One problem with this theory is that it’s mostly wrong historically (“mostly” because the evolution of policing in Southern states did have close links to slave patrols). Professional law enforcement in America evolved in the 1830 in tandem with its counterpart in England, where slavery had long been abolished; the first American municipal police forces were established in Boston in 1838, New York City in 1845, and Albany (New York) and Chicago in 1851—all in free states. In Twitter discussions, defenders of the theory of inherent police racism, such as historian Matthew Guariglia, have pointed out that after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, police officers in Northern cities were required to assist federal marshals in apprehending escaped slaves. But this was a highly controversial function, since by then most Northern states had passed laws (starting with the Personal Liberty Act in Massachusetts in 1843) prohibiting state officials from participating in the recapture of fugitive slaves. There were at least some instances of local law enforcement assisting in such captures after 1850, as legal scholar and author Steven Lubet documents in the 2010 book Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial; the capture of Thomas Sims in Boston and of William “Jerry” McHenry in Syracuse in 1851 are two of the more prominent examples. But this was, at the most, an occasional (and extremely unpopular) function performed by Northern police forces for a relatively brief period—the decade from the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to the start of the Civil War.

That aside, the idea that such historical racism remains almost irrevocably “baked into” modern-day institutions is not as compelling as current progressive rhetoric implies. There is solid evidence that, as Guariglia has argued, urban policing in America in the nineteenth century was “racialized” with regard to Irish immigrants (as the extant term “paddy wagon” reminds us) and Chinese immigrants. Yet Irish Americans went on to dominate many urban police forces in the twentieth century, and Asian Americans today are less likely than white Americans to be killed by law enforcement; a 2016 Pew Research Center poll found that police officers gave equally positive marks to their relations with Asian Americans and with whites in their communities, while relations with Hispanic and especially black community members were viewed much less positively.

To claim that American law enforcement today suffers from virtually intractable racial problems because of its supposedly white-supremacist origins is to ignore the way institutions evolve and adapt. (It’s the progressive version of the “Democrats are the party of the Ku Klux Klan” trope.) It’s also not exactly conducive to garnering support for reform efforts.

The complexities of the issues of race, crime, and policing also involve the thorny question of crime within the black community. When progressive discourse acknowledges that tough law-and-order policies in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s which led to skyrocketing black incarceration rates were actively championed by black politicians and public officials, it is mostly to claim that their efforts were coopted into a system rooted in racial oppression and racist stereotypes of blacks as “predisposed to criminality.” But disproportionately high crime rates among young black males were not a fiction (though of course attributing them to innate criminal predisposition is racist). Few observers today would disagree that more support is needed for crime prevention and the reintegration of ex-offenders into society. Yet protecting citizens from crime—which also very disproportionately affects black Americans—still needs to be a high priority.

This dilemma was evident in the tragic story of the death of Ma’Khia Bryant, the 16-year-old black girl in Columbus, Ohio whose fatal shooting by a police officer occurred just as the verdict in the Chauvin case was announced. Initial reports, drawing on information provided by Bryant’s aunt, said that the teenager was shot after she called 911 for help due to being threatened by other teens. This quickly sparked anger. The official account of the Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union responded with a tweet asserting that Bryant was “murdered” as part of the same “systems” that allowed the murder of George Floyd:

Yet bodycam footage of the shooting, as well as additional footage recorded by a neighbor across the street, seems to tell a very different story, one confirmed by eyewitnesses. Bryant, who had apparently been quarreling with fellow residents of a foster home, was in the process of lunging with a large knife at another, unarmed girl or young woman while verbally threatening to stab her. The responding officer had shouted to her to drop the knife before firing his gun; the entire incident unfolded over less than a minute. Perhaps, as many people have argued, the police should have done more to de-escalate the situation or disarm Bryant—hopefully a thorough investigation will establish whether there was time to do that—but it is wrong to imply that her death is evidence of the fundamental racism of policing.

Much conservative rhetoric on crime and race has undeniably given ammunition to charges of, at the very least, racial insensitivity. Ben Shapiro, for example, has to defend his 2016 tweet declaring that “Trayvon Martin would have turned 21 today if he hadn’t taken a man’s head and beaten it on the pavement before being shot,” supposedly because it was factual and based on the jury verdict acquitting the shooter, George Zimmerman. (In fact, the verdict reflects reasonable doubt; that aside, basic humanity requires acknowledging that the death of a 17-year-old is tragic even if his actions bore some blame.) Or consider Heather Mac Donald’s bizarre “proposal” in 2013 in response to Barack Obama’s remarks about black Americans’ experiences of being treated as suspected criminals: “For a good five-year stretch, blacks bring their crime rate down to white and Asian levels” and then see if unfair suspicions persist. (Mac Donald did not specify how law-abiding blacks who understandably resent racial profiling would go about reducing crime rates.)

In the face of such nastiness—especially after the presidency of Donald Trump, which brought a lot of racial ugliness on the right out into the open—it is tempting for decent conservatives to give credence to progressive narratives of “systemic racism” in policing and criminal justice. But these narratives should be viewed with skepticism, in no small part because “systemic racism” can mean too many different things—from poverty as a legacy of historical discrimination and oppression to covertly racist present-day norms in institutions. Patterns of racial disparity in law enforcement, including police harassment and abuse of civilians, are unquestionably real; but they likely reflect a multitude of factors, from differential rates of poverty to racist attitudes held by some cops to conscious or unconscious profiling that stems from differential crime rates. Given the current demographics of crime, eliminating racial disparities in police stops would be impossible without dramatically scaling down policing in lower-income minority neighborhoods—ones where residents generally want more police presence.

The simple, literally black-and-white narrative of racial injustice can galvanize political activism, as it did last summer after the death of George Floyd. But there are many downsides, too. While Black Lives Matter experienced a huge spike in support in the wake of Floyd’s death in late May 2020, by the end of the summer its approval appeared to slip from as many as two-thirds of all Americans to around or below 50 percent. The reasons were complicated, from protest-related violence to unpopular demands to defund or dismantle the police to the perception that the movement was too quick to side with people who may have been justifiably shot and too focused on race. In late August, The Bulwark’s Sarah Longwell reported such a backlash in her focus groups of centrist white women after the riots that followed the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin (another case in which the initial narrative was greatly complicated by facts that emerged later). As one woman put it, “If he was white no one would have cared.”

In addition, violent crime remains the elephant in the room. However oversimplified Mac Donald’s claims about the lack of racial bias in policing may be (and however obnoxious her tone), her controversial claim of a “Ferguson effect” in which BLM protests lead to less aggressive policing and more crime, primarily hurting minorities, seems to have been borne out by new research by Travis Campbell, a Ph.D. student in economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Campbell’s preliminary findings suggest that cities and towns which experienced BLM protests in 2015-19 saw a reduction in police killings (by about 300 total) but also an increase in murders, by a total of 1,000 to 6,000. That was before the violent crime surge of 2020.

It’s certainly possible—as the apparent recent success story in Newark, New Jersey shows—to reform law enforcement and drastically reduce both police killings and police brutality without reducing crime control. But that takes more funding, not less, since it requires extensive community outreach, de-escalation training, and other labor-intensive programs. And it certainly can’t be accomplished with overwrought claims about cops indiscriminately slaughtering black people, invocations of slave patrols, or assertions that a white mass shooter being captured alive is an indication of “white privilege.”

Anti-Trump conservatives and centrists are in a good position to offer an alternative to inflammatory rhetoric, fact-free narratives, and fearmongering on the right and the left. Today, such alternatives are desperately needed.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.