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.

A Decade of Crime in Ferguson, MO.

A simple analysis of crime statistics for Ferguson, MO, for the period 2000 to 2012 shows some basic patterns.[1] Property crimes (theft, burglary, auto theft) accounted for an average of 92 percent of all crimes per year. Robbery and Assault in roughly equal numbers accounted for an average of 7.18 percent of all crimes per year. The occasional murder, rape, or arson accounts for the remaining 1 percent of all crimes per year.

Across the period:

Theft fell by 28 percent, with most the most distinct decline coming from 2004 on.

Burglary fell by 21 percent, but there was a huge upward spike in 2007 and 2008.

Auto Theft fell by 51.7 percent from 2012, but the problem fluctuated within that trend (rose from 2000-2004, fell slightly from 2005-2009, and then dropped sharply from 2010 -2012.)

Robbery fell by 22.4 percent from 2000 to 2012, but with a severe spike from 2007 to 2009.

Assault fell by 15.8 percent from 2000 to 2012, but there was a spike up in 2008.

What can we make of these numbers?

Broadly, the Ferguson Police Department could legitimately congratulate itself on having done a good job in making the citizens of the town safer between 2000 and 2012. This may not have been a state of mind in which to conduct a critical self-evaluation of methods or community relations.

Why did Theft fall? This isn’t likely to be a product of policing. Store-owners tend to be on their own in preventing theft by employees and customers. Did store-owners adopt more rigorous security measures? Security cameras in plain sight, electronic tags on goods, a friendly-but-aggressive staff that stays in contact with customers throughout their time in the store are key components of loss-prevention. This can come across as an aggressive display of distrust toward customers.

Why did Burglary fall? Did an increasing number of people in Ferguson get electronic security systems? Did they at least get the little yard signs that announce that the house is “Protected by …”? Was there an expansion of neighborhood watches? Did the police offer advising on the little things that can make burglary more difficult?[2]

Why did Auto Theft fall? Auto theft fell because stealing newer cars is much more difficult than stealing older cars.[3] The introduction of “engine immobilizer systems” from the late 1990s on made it almost impossible to steal new cars. Theft shifted to older cars that could be scrapped and sold for parts. In a poor town like Ferguson, there were probably a lot of older cars. Once stolen, however, they were replaced by newer cars that couldn’t be stolen.

The year 2008 represented a crisis for Ferguson police. Burglary, Robbery, and Assault all spiked. The increase in Burglary might reflect the appearance of a gang of burglars working Ferguson and possibly neighboring communities. The increase in Robbery might reflect the appearance of a group or a few individual criminals on a hiatus between prison sentences. In either case, the police may have been ordered to make their presence felt on the street.

In sum, there is still much to learn about Ferguson, MO in the wake of the two recent reports from the Justice Department. (See: “Ferguson, MO,” November 2014.)

[1] Based on http://www.city-data.com/crime/crime-Ferguson-Missouri.html

[2] Lock your doors and windows. Don’t leave a spare key “hidden” outside the house; don’t put the box for your new computer or television out in the trash; get somebody to take in your mail if you’re away.

[3] Josh Barro, “Here’s Why Stealing Cars Went Out of Fashion,” NYT, 11 August 2014.


First, it is worth pointing out that Michael Brown robbed a store shortly before the encounter with Darren Wilson. Brown shoved the much smaller store employee who tried to get in his way. Soon afterward, he shoved the door of the police car shut when Officer Darren Wilson tried to exit. Then he struggled with Wilson. Was Brown, in fact, a “gentle giant”? Or did he have a history—written or unwritten—of violent encounters? If Brown was the “gentle giant” alleged by friends and family, what brought on this fit of physical aggression on the day he died? What put him over the edge into serious anger on his last day?   I haven’t seen any reporting that addresses these questions. Based on the little I have read about Michael Brown, he appears to have been an unpleasant person. This is not a capital crime.[1]

Second, I think that Darren Wilson succumbed to rage during his encounter with Michael Brown. I myself succumbed to rage one time. During a prolonged argument, someone did something that put me over the edge psychologically. During this episode, I was “outside myself” in some sense. Unthinking. Acting—I guess—on some deep impulse. Not feeling pain, and with time slowing down. That’s evidence for a huge adrenalin dump. At the last moment, God saved me from beating the other person to death.[2] So, that’s the basis for my thinking about this particular aspect of the case. The whole thing took place in a very compressed span of time” 90 seconds. What critical things happened? Brown shoved the door closed on Wilson when he was trying to exit the vehicle. Wilson grabbed Brown around the neck through the window. They struggled. Wilson at least believed that Brown had reached for his weapon, so he drew and fired within the car. Brown broke off and moved away. Wilson exited the vehicle, fired at Brown, and ordered Brown to stop. Brown turned to face him, then approached Wilson. It isn’t clear to me what happened after that. In any case, Wilson then shot Brown a bunch of times. The last one went into the top of Brown’s head while he was lying on the ground. A fatal wound, even if the other ones were not, fired after Brown posed absolutely no threat. To me, this is evidence that Wilson had lost control of himself. He revved through most of his mag, firing a total of twelve rounds. Racism and Rage aren’t the same thing.

Third, I think that District Attorney Robert McCulloch chose an unusual path for the grand jury, one that was unlikely to result in an indictment of Darren Wilson. In Anglo-American law, a trial is a confrontational procedure in which both the prosecution and the defense seek to structure the evidence to generate conflicting interpretations of that evidence. A decision emerges from the confrontation of the interpretations.   The jury must find for guilt or for innocence unanimously. Otherwise, you get a mistrial and a go-around. However, District Attorney Robert McCulloch short-circuited that procedure. Dumping all the information available in the case in an unstructured mass into the lap of the grand jury, with no one to provide an alternative explanation, and then letting them sort it out for themselves is a ludicrous procedure. If he had wanted to find out what happened, then he would have actively sought an indictment. New York judge Sol Wachtler once said that if a prosecutor wants to, he can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. Apparently, Darren Wilson isn’t a ham sandwich.

[1] At least, I hope that it isn’t for my own sake.

[2] Afterward, I felt dirty, and empty, and afraid—not of the Law, but of my newly-revealed, previously-unknown self. If I had killed the other person, then I would have been guilty under the law of some form of homicide. I imagine—and I hope with all my heart—that I would have been racked with guilt and felt deep remorse. Perhaps Darren Wilson feels these things. The circumstances for feeling remorse or expressing regret are not favorable.