Thursday, June 2, 2016

Violence, Racism and Law Enforcement


As I mentioned in my previous post, I recently did a police ride-along, and I observed nothing but stellar professional behavior by the peace officers. And yet, we hear and read a lot about police brutality and racism.

In America, the police kill an inordinate number of people. This is widely known, regardless of the source you use. According to Police in US Kill Citizens at over 70 Times the Rate of Other First-World Nations, the number for 2014 was 1,140. That same year, German cops killed 7 people. The rates for other comparable countries - Canada, the UK, Japan, Australia, etc. - are similar to Germany’s. America’s total number is even higher than China’s, which has four times more people.

Looking at the state-by-state distribution of these killings-by-cops (Citizens Killed by Police, by State), the South has the most, both in absolute and relative terms: 40%. The Rocky Mountain states account for 12% of all cases, which is high given the region’s low population. Also extremely high is the West Coast, due primarily to California. This state has by far the highest number of civilians killed by police, namely 16% of the nation’s total, even though it only makes up 12% of the country’s population. The lowest numbers are found in New England. Its share of the total is 2%, which means that its rate is roughly the same as those of most Western European countries.

Here are the absolute numbers for the five highest and the five lowest states, for the first half of 2016: Highest: California 95; Texas 64; Florida 43; Arizona 28; Oklahoma 26. Lowest: Vermont, Rhode Island and South Dakota: 0; Maine and Connecticut: 1. The national total for the first half of 2016 is 605, for an expected annual total of over 1200.

You might counter that (1) we have more crime than most other First-World countries and (2) we are more heavily armed.

True. But isn’t this exactly part of the problem? American police violence is part of OVERALL American violence. It is not the solution of that problem. The question is: why can our society not be more like Canada, Japan, Australia and Western Europe in this regard?

I have never understood why American police departments do not favor stricter gun control. No one would benefit more from a reduction in the number of firearms than law enforcement. Knowing that in any confrontation with the public they are likely to be the only party that is armed, should give them the kind of confidence which even unarmed British bobbies enjoy.

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A disproportionate number of the people killed by the police are black. Hence, we now have the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

The prima facie evidence is clear. Of the 1140 people killed by police in 2015, the rate for African-Americans was 7.2 per million, that for whites was 2.92. Blacks are two and half times more likely to be killed by police than whites.

You might counter the same way as before: African-Americans are disproportionately criminal.

My answer to this is the one I have given for thirty years in my criminology classes: When you control for socio-economic status, the differences between the black crime rate and the white crime rate evaporate. Crime has everything to do with social class and nothing to do with race. The relationship between crime and race is what statisticians call spurious. O. J. Simpson didn’t have to be white to beat the rap.

Does law enforcement still discriminate on the basis of race? Is there still profiling going on? Is “DWB” (driving while black) still an offense? Remember: the question is not whether cops stop blacks more often than whites (they do), but do they do this based on race, or is it based on other suspicions, which attach more frequently to the lower class and therefore to blacks, who are of course over-represented in the lower class?

I don’t know.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, The Nationwide Crime Wave is Building, Heather MacDonald argued that the “Black Lives Matter” movement has generated a “Ferguson Effect.” Ferguson, MO is where an unarmed young black man named Michael Brown was killed by a policeman in 2014. This and other similar events then generated heightened levels of police scrutiny and protests. People such as MacDonald argue that this in turn has caused police forces to back off, to relax their law enforcement practices and to suffer from lower morale. Also, police-community relations have deteriorated. Hostility towards the police has increased, especially among African-Americans.

According to MacDonald, all of this is causing the renewed rise in the crime rate. There is no doubt that crime is rising. In America’s 63 largest cities, homicide during the first quarter of 2016 was 9% higher than in 2015, and last year’s numbers were 17% above the previous year in the 56 largest cities. Violent crime is rising everywhere, in some cities such as Baltimore and Chicago very rapidly. Chicago’s homicide is up 60% this year, double what it was two years ago.

MacDonald is scathing about the “Black Lives Matter” movement and about president Obama’ support of it. She also claims that there is no need for greater review of police behavior. She is wrong.

There is now a “Blue Lives Matter” movement afoot: States such as Louisiana wish to enhance penalties for violence against peace officers. In other words, make it a hate crime (see Douglas and Mueller) Violence against peace officers is a very serious crime, but it is not on the rise. Such legislation is unnecessary. Tragic as each death is, the number of policemen killed in the line of duty continues to decline. During the turbulent sixties and seventies, over 200 peace officers were murdered every year. In recent years, it hovers between 60 an d 100. This decline is good news. Cops are actually safer on the street than you and I. They are armed, trained, feared, alert and they work in groups. Most jurisdictions already have enhanced penalties for offenses against law enforcement.

But Mac Donald’s main point has merit: It almost seems to be a law of nature that when punishment goes up, deviant behavior goes down. Until the 1990s, violent crime in the US was rising. By the early nineties, our homicide rate was 10.5 per 100,000. The crack epidemic turned some American cities into war zones.

Then, came the crack-down: James Q Wilson’s “broken windows” approach became de rigueur, implemented by people like New York City’s police chief William Bratton. No more turnstile jumping or urinating in the subway was tolerated. Crime would be nipped in the bud. The prison population exploded. Between 1982 and 2000, the population of the California State Prison system multiplied sixfold, from fewer than 25,000 to 160,000 (!). The nation’s total prison and jail population rose to two and half million, by far the largest number in the world. And lo and behold, crime went down. In 1990, there were 2234 homicides in New York City. By 2014, there were 328. That’s an 85% decline, from 31 per 100,000 to 2.2 per 100,000. You are now more likely to be murdered in Amsterdam or Paris than in New York.

So yes, there is an inverse correlation between crime and punishment. Duh! When I drove around the Soviet Union, I was a lot safer than I would be now driving around a relatively “free” Russia.

The trick for society is to balance repression and freedom. In this country, that relationship is complex, because we have both extreme anarchist and authoritarian tendencies. The position of cops is ambiguous. They are essential, but they are also resented. They are respected and feared. In general, the better their training is, the better their behavior. Cops with a college education can be very classy. Ultimately, it is the political system which will determine whether the police is part of the problem or part of the solution. The relationship between the police and the community must be one of mutual respect and cooperation. The police is essential. Chaos is not option.
© Tom Kando 2016
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