[This book review was published in the Spring 2017 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 127-134.]

 

Book Review

 

The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe

Heather MacDonald

Encounter Books, 2016

 

            “Hands up, don’t shoot!” became the mantra of the “Black Lives Matter” movement in the United States after Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014.  The catchphrase came from the version that Brown was shot while holding his hands up, trying to surrender.  Heather MacDonald, a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, presents a different picture: “The facts were that Brown, a budding criminal who weighed nearly 300 pounds, had punched Wilson in the face, tried to grab Wilson’s gun, and charged at him, leading Wilson to fire in self-defense.”  She supports this rebuttal with an analysis of the evidence, the witnesses, and the grand jury decision not to indict the officer.

            Like an archaeologist uncovering the remains of an ancient city, one finds there are successive layers to the consideration of race and criminal justice in the United States.  For a good many years, there has been serious discussion among thoughtful commentators and policy makers on both the Right and the Left about crime and what to do about it.  On top of it, or alongside it, is a layer of very extensive activity by the Left premised on the view that all aspects of policing and criminal justice are discolored by anti-black racism.  In addition to discussing how it affects the federal legal system, MacDonald says that “at the state and city levels, there is hardly a single criminal-justice practice that is not under fire for supposedly oppressing blacks.”  These include “traffic monitoring, antitheft statutes, drug patrols, public-order policing, trespass arrests, pedestrian stops, bail, warrant enforcement, fines for absconding from court, parole revocations, probation oversight, [and] sentences for repeat felony offenders….”  Now, an additional layer, the “icing on the cake” so to speak, is the highly charged, often violent, agitation against the police, not just in Ferguson, but throughout the United States, arising out of the Ferguson episode and other claimed incidents of unwarranted police shootings of “unarmed black men.”  This layer is the main focus of The War on Cops.

            Several of the chapters are based on articles MacDonald has written for City Journal, noted for its in-depth studies on a wide range of social issues.  Others first appeared in outlets such as National Review and the Wall Street Journal.  Nevertheless, despite a few repetitions, it is not disjointed as compilations are prone to be.  It flows easily over a good many related topics.  Although MacDonald at no time strays from level-headed discussion, she does not affect a neutrality that would rob the book of its substance.[1]  She doesn’t claim the police are perfect or that there is no room for improvement,[2] but neither does she accept the racial critique that now leads to mass demonstrations and even to the assassination of police officers.[3]  She is outspoken in her criticism of the Obama administration, calling it “the most anti-law enforcement administration in memory,” and makes clear her conclusion that the “Black Lives Matter” movement is founded on lies.  MacDonald says the source of the claim that Brown was saying “hands up, don’t shoot” was “Brown’s companion Dorian Johnson” who “was a proven liar.”  She observes that “lying about interactions between officers and civilians is endemic in urban areas.”  

            We know that each police shooting needs to be examined on its merits.  Cell phone cameras are so ubiquitous these days that many of the episodes are captured on film.  Many justify the police officer’s action, but some do not, as MacDonald points out when she writes of “the videos that discredited police narratives in the shootings of Walter Scott in North Charleston… and of Laquan McDonald in Chicago.”  A radical division is apparent in The War on Cops between dealing with each incident through due process and dealing with it through mass demonstrations, anti-police riots, and racially charged media coverage.  As the book makes clear, the latter are based on a widely held view of American society – that the society is, in effect, racially oppressive, with the side-effect that due process is a farce.

            An issue of a different kind – one that impacts the rhetoric about all sorts of real or imagined cases of anti-black bias in policing and criminal justice – relates to the use of statistical comparisons for detecting discrimination.  So widespread is the abuse of statistics in this connection that MacDonald’s frequent pointing to the fallacious methodology is certainly one of the book’s most valuable contributions.  Hers is a point that needs to be made over and over again to impress itself upon the millions of Americans who receive the constantly reiterated comparisons passively – i.e., innocently and unthinkingly.  One cannot help but surmise, however, that most of those who misuse the statistics do so dishonestly, both because the fallacy is apparent on its face to anyone conversant with statistics and because the error is often brought to their attention, not just by MacDonald but by many others.  An excellent illustration of the fallacy is when President Obama argued that the prison population shows how incarceration “disproportionately impacts communities of color,” basing this conclusion on the comparison that “African Americans and Latinos make up 30 percent of our population; they make up 60 percent of our inmates.”  MacDonald observes that “naturally, Obama said nothing about crime rates.” 

With a correct (and honest) methodology, the number of inmates (or arrestees, or defendants convicted, etc.) will not be compared to the total population of people of a given ethnicity, but to the population of those who commit the offenses.  A proper identification of the categories that are to be compared is essential for sound statistical analysis.  In speaking of racial discrimination in policing, the percentage of blacks in the American population is irrelevant.  Two categories are relevant: (1) the percentage of blacks in the population of those who commit a certain offense; and (2) the percentage of blacks who are apprehended for it.  These categories can properly be compared.   For example, if 27 percent of people who commit shootings were black, and 40 percent of the people arrested for it were black, there would be a disparity.  (It’s worth noting that even if a disparity is present, the disparity is not itself definitive about racial discrimination.  Data-driven policing seeks to channel extra police resources into the high-crime areas, and that in itself is likely to result in a higher percentage of arrests in those areas.)               

MacDonald illustrates the high crime rate by pointing out that in New York City “blacks are 23 percent of the population but commit over 75 percent of all shootings in the city.”  It is nonsensical to argue that arrests and convictions for unlawful shootings must be limited to 23 percent so that they will be proportionate to the total black population.  It would not be a “disproportionate impact” for the criminal justice system to catch and punish 100 percent of those who do the shootings.     

            The dishonest use of racial comparisons is so common that one sees it constantly in the media.  The problem is, however, much broader than just an inflammatory abuse of statistics.  We see much evidence in The War on Cops of the blanket of ideological sophistries that lies like an incubus over the American consciousness on many subjects.  One way of seeing the book is as an extended case-study in how the incubus affects one aspect of American life, in this case the criminal justice system.  Although challenged by the recent populist upsurge in the United States, this collective consciousness has long been formed by the opinion-makers and the millions who conform their own thinking to it.[4]  The influence of the sophistries is illustrated by much that MacDonald tells us. 

            She writes of an “elite liberal mind-set” with views that include a “deep denial about black underclass behavior.”  This denial leads the elites to “have so lowered their expectations for black behavior that they accept criminality as normal” and black rioting as “understandable.”  (She rightly points out, by way of contrast, that “plenty of blacks reject such condescension and excuse-making.”  A part of the fracturing that exists within the United States today, however, is that the dominant opinion-makers’ outlook receives much repetition, while the blacks she’s referring to are hardly heard.) 

The dominant mind-set has many contributors, who are mutually reinforcing.  MacDonald observes this when she says “the political, legal, and media components of the campaign against the New York Police Department reinforce one another.”  After President Obama toured the country declaring “that blacks were right to believe that the criminal-justice system was often stacked against them,” university presidents, among them Harvard’s and Smith College’s, “rushed to show their fealty to the lie.”  The New York Times and New York City’s mayor chimed in.  MacDonald says Princeton has been “a ‘hot-bed’ of mass-incarceration theory,” which contends there has been “the systematic imprisonment of whole groups.”  Many law schools have made themselves centers of racial activism, so that “an entire industry in the law schools now dedicates itself to flushing out prosecutorial and judicial bias.”  She doesn’t mention the Frankfurt School’s leftist cultural critique by name, but we see its concepts at work when she tells of the High Theory formulated by some criminologists.  The theory holds that “the problem is how society defines crime and criminals.  Crime is a social construction designed to marginalize minorities….”  Indeed, academia contributes much to the incubus.  MacDonald cites “academic doctrine” to the effect that even serious violations of parole are merely technical violations, and “largely innocuous.” 

It remains to be seen whether major outlets will come into being in the United States that will offset or even replace what is today called the “mainstream media,” but thus far the dominant media flood the country with the incubus’ insights on all subjects, which include – as MacDonald shows so clearly – the hostile racial critique.  The outlook reappears in many ways: When there are violent riots, smashing store windows and burning businesses and police cars, the press reports use the euphemism “unrest,” and the New York Times “could not bring itself to say one word of condemnation.”  At the same time, the violence is turned into spectacle, creating what MacDonald calls “riot porn.”  She says the around-the-clock reporting feeds an “insatiable craving for live visual excitement,” and that this “creates a codependency between reporters and rioters.”  The media’s omissions play a part in what news is reported: the first stories coming out about the Ferguson shooting “contained several key elements of Wilson’s [the police officer’s] self-defense,” but these reports “were immediately purged from the dominant narrative.”  When young blacks come together, summoned through social media, in American cities to form “flash mobs” to loot and assault whites, the media “shrinks from reporting it.”

It would seem inevitable that a highly partisan media would apply double standards.  MacDonald notes that no one complains about “disproportion” when most of the Rikers Island jail complex guards in New York City are black, even though blacks make up only 23 percent of the city’s population.  While much attention is given to shootings of blacks by police officers (white or black), which in 2015 came to 258, “silence greets the daily homicides committed by blacks against other blacks.  (In 2014, 6,095 blacks were murdered, “overwhelmingly by other blacks.”)  The penalties for methamphetamine trafficking have been as severe as for crack traffickers, but the media has said much about the harshness of the crack penalty, while making almost no mention of the meth penalty.  It is no coincidence that most crack offenders are black, while a majority of meth offenders are either white (54 percent) or Hispanic (39 percent).

One of the book’s most important points is MacDonald’s thesis that the crisis of American black criminality comes not from an oppressive main society, but from the existence of a black “underclass” in which a key factor is the breakdown of the black family.  One of MacDonald’s chapters is in effect a review of Alice Goffman’s On the Run, which is actually a sympathetic view of life among the underclass in Philadelphia.  The book describes how “fatherlessness is a virtually universal condition” and most men have several child-bearing girlfriends, who themselves have several boyfriends.  Even the black mothers are abandoning their children, leaving it to grandparents and other “extended family” members to raise them.  In Chicago, about 80 percent of black births are to unmarried mothers.  It’s a world “where marriage is virtually unheard of and where no one expects a man to stick around and help raise a child.”  MacDonald reminds us there have been countless federal programs to help the inner cities, and says “if ‘collective action’ could compensate for the absence of fathers, the black violence problem would have ended years ago.”  If she is right about this, the incubus’s conviction that an oppressive white society is at fault is not only false, but is counter-productive, since it makes excuses for the behavior that is the core of the problem.  What is called for is a profound change in the culture of the underclass – a long-term project for which black leadership would seem essential.  For such leadership to come to the forefront, there will need to be a sea-change in the attitudes of racial alienation.

There is much more in The War On Cops than we have mentioned so far.   MacDonald gives much detail about the criminal justice system, and the statistics on crime and incarceration.  In the course of that, she has occasion to confront concepts she considers faulty (such as “the mass incarceration conceit” that holds that racism, not violence, accounts for the large number of blacks in prison), and she tells of concepts and policies she thinks sound.  These include “stop and frisk,” “Broken Windows policing” (which goes after lesser misconduct to create a more wholesome atmosphere less conducive to serious crime), and saturation policing in Impact Zones (high-crime areas) revealed by data collection.  The book has limitations, however, that a given reader may or may not find important: it makes no attempt to survey the vast field of sober policy discussion and legislation that has burned brightly for many years.  We mentioned earlier that underneath all the rhetoric there has been such a layer of serious debate.  A scholarly review of the legislation and policy prescriptions would be valuable.  But that would be another book.  MacDonald may do well to make that her next project.  This has been a good one.

 

Dwight D. Murphey

 

Endnotes

1.  One small example of how she stands outside the cocoon of “politically correct” conformity comes in a brief reference she makes to “illegal immigrants,” eschewing the euphemism “undocumented.”  It’s another point entirely, but it’s worth noting that MacDonald never brings up the subject of illegal immigration in her factual summaries of crime in the United States.  This is, of course, a major omission, which is no doubt, for one reason or another, intentional.

2.  She says, for example, that there are indeed valid criticisms of Ferguson, Missouri, police practices; and that “there are [in the country at large] plenty of officers” who need retraining, most particularly in professional courtesy and in the form of “de-escalation training” to minimize the use of police force.  When she identifies it as a “questionable practice” to “wallop suspects who talk back,” it is interesting to place that in the context of today’s popular culture: it is the sort of rough-and-tumble (but effective) police work that TV audiences relish about the detective Danny Reagan in the popular show “Blue Bloods.”  (The plots often involve the tension, within the closely-knit Reagan family, between those who want to go strictly by the law and police regulations, and those who see justice as better served by cutting corners.)

3.  New York City police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were assassinated by Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley in December 2014.  Officer Darren Goforth was assassinated in Houston in August 2015.  MacDonald tells of the “What do we want?  Dead cops” chant, and about “a rap video extolling cop-killings.”

 



[1]  One small example of  how she stands outside the cocoon of “politically correct” conformity comes in a brief reference she makes to “illegal immigrants,” eschewing the euphemism “undocumented.”  It’s another point entirely, but it’s worth noting that MacDonald never brings up the subject of illegal immigration in her factual summaries of crime in the United States.  This is, of course, a major omission, which is no doubt, for one reason or another, intentional.

 

[2]  She says, for example, that there are indeed valid criticisms of Ferguson, Missouri, police practices; and that “there are [in the country at large] plenty of officers” who need retraining, most particularly in professional courtesy and in the form of “de-escalation training” to minimize the use of police force.  When she identifies it as a “questionable practice” to “wallop suspects who talk back,” it is interesting to place that in the context of today’s popular culture: it is that sort of rough-and-tumble (but effective) police work that TV audiences relish about the detective Danny Reagan in the popular show “Blue Bloods.”  (The plots often involve the tension, within the closely-knit Reagan family, between those who want to go strictly by the law and police regulations, and those who see justice as better served by cutting corners.)

[3]  New York City police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were assassinated by Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley in December 2014.   Officer Darren Goforth was assassinated in Houston in August 2015.  MacDonald tells of the “What do we want?  Dead cops” chant, and about “a rap video extolling cop-killings.”

[4]   This reviewer has recently come to refer to this as the domination by “those whose opinions count,” to whom he gives the fanciful Dr. Seuss-type name “PeeWOCs.”