Race and Policing.

In August 2014, a police officer shot to death Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In August 2014, 44 percent of Americans described race relations as bad.[1] Among African-Americans, 80 percent believed that the shooting “raises important issues about race that need to be discussed,” and 37 percent of whites agreed. In contrast, 47 percent of whites believed that “race is getting more attention [in the media] than it deserves.”[2] In December 2014, after the failure of a grand jury to indict police officers in the death of Eric Garner, 44 percent of Americans described race relations as bad, and 36 percent thought race relations were getting worse. In January 2015, 40 percent of Americans thought race relations were “fairly good” or “very good.”[3] In March 2015, 38 percent of Americans described race relations as bad.[4] Then, in April 2015 came the shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, and the death of Freddie Gray, and the Baltimore riots. Soon afterward, 61 percent of Americans said race relations were bad; 44 percent thought that race relations were getting worse.[5]   In sum, less than a year ago, a large minority of Americans, but a huge majority of African-Americans, thought that race relations were bad. Broadly, this pattern continued until Spring 2015. Then the deaths of Walter Clark and Freddie Gray triggered a lurch toward seeing race relations as bad.

Clearly, this growing sense that race relations are bad is related to police use of force. In December 2014, after a grand jury declined to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown, 48 percent approved the decision, and 45 percent disapproved it, including 85 percent of African-Americans.[6] When, on 3 December 2014, a grand-jury refused to indict New York police officers in the death of Eric Garner, 57 percent of Americans saw this as an error, 22 percent saw it as the correct decision, and 21 percent weren’t sure or didn’t know. Within the majority believing the decision to be an error were 90 percent of African-Americans polled, but only 47 percent of whites.[7] Again, there is a consistent majority of African-American opinion holding one opinion. White opinion seems to have shifted as case after case of grand juries refusing to indict police officers came to their attention.

In December 2014, 40 percent of Americans believed that deadly force was more likely to be used against an African-American.[8] In April 2015, 44 percent of Americans believed that the police are more likely to use deadly force against an African-American.[9] At the same time, 37 percent of whites and 79 percent of African-Americans believe that the police are more likely to use deadly force against African-Americans. A hair over 50 percent of Americans didn’t believe that race is a factor in police officers’ decision to use force.

There are at least two possible explanations for the divergence of views between African-Americans and Caucasian Americans. One explanation is that intense media attention to an unusual series of controversial cases has allowed African-American activists to foment anger. In this interpretation, the passage of time will heal wounds. Another explanation is that American society remains deeply segregated, so Caucasian Americans have no sense of the range of real experiences of African-Americans. In this interpretation, African-Americans are broadly correct in their perception and Caucasian Americans are living in a dream world.

By December 2014, a huge majority of Americans–some 87 percent–wanted body cameras on police so that contested incidents can have some kind of documentary record. (The racial divide on the issue was virtually non-existent: 90 percent of African-Americans and 85 percent of whites favor the cameras.)[10]

Which interpretation is more nearly correct? In early June 2015, a Washington Post effort to quantify police shootings found that US police had shot and killed at least 385 people in the first half of 2015. Two-thirds of the unarmed people killed by the police were African-Americans or Hispanics.[11] So, apparently, the police are more likely to use deadly force against African-Americans, and Hispanics as well.

According to the 2012 census, 63 percent of the population was non-Hispanic white; 17 percent was Hispanic-Latino; 12.4 percent was African-American; 4.4 percent was Asian-American, for a total of 96.8 percent. Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Arab Americans made up the remainder.[12]

About 50 percent of all American homicide victims are African-Americans.[13] If African-Americans make up about one-eighth of the population, then they are massively over-represented among the ranks of those liable to be murdered. Many African-Americans live in a violent place that white Americans cannot or will not bother to imagine. Moreover, use of the death penalty has dropped off sharply since it was re-instituted in 1977, but 77 percent of those executed have been put to death for killing a white victim.[14] Without wanting to argue for a wider use of the death penalty, can this be read as a subtle affirmation that “Black Lives Don’t Matter”?

Are African-Americans more likely to use deadly force against police officers? In January 2015, the Washington Post reported that 511 police officers had been killed between 2004 and 2013. Of the 540 people identified as having been involved in the killings, 43 percent were African-American and 52 percent were white.[15] Thus, it appears that Hispanics and Asians aren’t likely to kill police officers; whites are statistically somewhat under-represented in the killing of police officers; and African-Americans are dramatically over-represented.

These statistics just add another layer of complexity to understanding the violent police-community interactions that have so deeply troubled America in the last year.

The discussion shouldn’t stop there however. Race relations aren’t just about policing. In the aftermath of the riots in Baltimore attending the arresting-to-death of Freddie Gray, 50 percent of African-Americans believed that poverty and a lack of opportunity explained “a great deal” of the rioting.[16] To take just one example, in the wake of the “Great Recession,” white people are dramatically better off than are African-Americans. An average white household possesses 13 times as much “wealth” (assets, not income) as does the average African-American household.[17] In contrast, 39 percent of whites believed that poverty and a lack of opportunity explained “a great deal” of the rioting. That means that 61 percent of whites and 50 percent of African-Americans either did not believe that poverty and a lack of opportunity explained “a great deal” of the rioting or they “didn’t know.” You don’t have to believe that the rioters in Baltimore were driven by poverty and a lack of opportunity to believe that the focus on policing is a way of avoiding taking about other, more troubling and difficult dimensions of race relations.

[1] Dalia Sussman, “Views on Race Relations Worsen, Poll Finds,” NYT, 5 May 2015.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 29 August 2014, p. 17.

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 16 January, 2015, p. 17.

[4] Dalia Sussman, “Views on Race Relations Worsen, Poll Finds,” NYT, 5 May 2015.

[5] Dalia Sussman, “Views on Race Relations Worsen, Poll Finds,” NYT, 5 May 2015.

[6] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 12 December 2014, p. 19.

[7] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 19 December 2014, p. 19.

[8] Dalia Sussman, “Views on Race Relations Worsen, Poll Finds,” NYT, 5 May 2015.

[9] Dalia Sussman, “Views on Race Relations Worsen, Poll Finds,” NYT, 5 May 2015.

[10] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 19 December 2014, p. 19. There is something very American and contemporary about believing that the solution to a problem is to be found in technology.

[11] “Noted,” The Week, 12 June 2015, p. 16.   About a quarter of the people killed were subsequently identified as mentally ill. Harder to organize the mentally ill, march on city hall, chant “No sanity, no peace.”

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_and_ethnicity_in_the_United_States#Racial_makeup_of_the_U.S._population

[13] “Noted,” The Week, 16 May 2014, p. 18.

[14] “Noted,” The Week, 16 May 2014, p. 18.

[15] “Noted,” The Week, 23 January 2015, p. 16.

[16] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 15 May 2015, p. 17.

[17] “Noted,” The Week, 26 December 2014, p. 16.


Digging deeper.

Sometimes, the investigation of one thing turns up evidence on something else. That’s one of the hazards—or pleasures—of historical research, journalism, and policing. That’s the case with the follow-on to a couple of recent traumatic events.

First, since the indictment of six Baltimore police officers in the death of Freddie Gray on 1 May 2015, Baltimore has suffered 55 murders.[1] That is twice the “normal” rate and the highest levels seen in the city since the very violent 1970s. Why the surge in homicides? African-American community leaders blame what amounts to a police strike since the indictment of the officers. The arrest rate dropped sharply. This alleged stand-down by the street cops “gave criminals space to operate.” This isn’t very credible as an explanation. Murder rates vary across months of the year, while the police presence remains basically stable. One kid living near a drug market told the New York Times that “Summertime: that’s when they do all the killing.” A more compelling explanation is the one offered by Baltimore police officials. During the riot in April 2015, 27 pharmacies were looted. Officials estimate that 175,000 doses of Oxycontin disappeared.[2] Oxycontin moves on the street for $30 a dose, so that’s $5.25 million of drugs that landed in the hands of dealers.[3] Because it was cost-free, it all represents pure profit after the distribution costs to the dealers. They key to profit, then, appears to be control of marketing outlets, rather than control over supply. That means a war for the corners and increased murders.

Second, the death of Eric Garner while being arrested in July 2014 reveals something about police-community interactions beyond the standard “broken relationship” trope.[4] In their longer-term context, police-community relations deteriorate when the community feels that it has been abandoned by the police to the criminals. Rebuilding that relationship requires the police to act effectively and to be seen to be acting effectively against crime. When William Bratton headed the New York Police Department (NYPD) in the 1990s, he introduced the “broken windows” strategy. This involved addressing the many small signs of social decay to clear away the underbrush that both shielded and could grow into serious crime. The NYPD also adopted a more analytical, statistics-based approach to targeting resources. Those approaches have remained in effect to this day. Crime rates have dropped dramatically, although people often contest claims that “broken windows” policing is responsible for the drop.

Tomkinsville Park on Staten Island had emerged as one area of statistical concern to police leaders. A little over half way through 2014, there had already been 696 calls to 911 about the area. There had also been 11 posts to the city’s hotline for complaints, called 311. Between March and June 2014, these reports had reached senior police commanders and the local commanders on Staten Island had been instructed to address the issue.

One of the 311 complaints came from Gjafer Gjeshbritaj, who owned an apartment building in the area. He complained of drug dealers hanging out in front of his building. His earlier efforts to disperse them had led to a physical confrontation. Moreover, Gjeshbitraj complained, the dealers used the people selling “loose” (illegal untaxed) cigarettes as cover for their own business.

This converged with the “broken windows” strategy and Mr. Gjeshbitraj belonged to the community of law-abiding citizens with whom the police were trying to build ties. Police visits to Tomkinsville Park increased and so did arrests, summonses, and warnings.

On 17 July 2014, a police lieutenant passing by noticed the crowd of cigarette sellers and others on the sidewalk near the park. He called the local precinct to tell them to send some men. All the rest followed.

[1] Richard Oppel, Jr., “Looking for Gains in Policing, Baltimore Finds Fewer Police,” NYT, 13 June 2015. Forty-two murders in May and 13 so far in June.

[2] I conjecture that large amounts of Sudafed disappeared as well. Following cultural stereotyping, I further conjecture that this all was unloaded to wholesalers in West Virginia and on the Eastern Shore.

[3] To get a sense of proportion, the Federal Government’s Small Business Administration announced a program to grant $1 million in small business loans in Baltimore following the riot. See: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-business-riot-recovery-20150529-story.html

[4] Al Baker, J. David Goodman, and Benjamin Mueller, “Beyond the Chokehold: The Unexplored Path to Eric Garner’s Death,” NYT, 14 June 2015.