Both Black and Blue Lives Matter.

This is ill-timed, so it is probably ill-considered.  Probably mealy-mouthed as well.

Generally, crime rates in America are down markedly from two decades ago.  (This is not true if you live in Chicago.)  The drop has not entirely been explained.  One explanation, advanced by the police is that aggressive street policing (e.g. “stop-and-frisk”) has taken criminals off the street, deterred many others, and stopped a downward spiral of civic demoralization.[1]

Effective or not, the policy had unhappy consequences that were not, but could have been, anticipated.   First, African-Americans are victims of crime at much higher rates than are whites.  Since we live in a still-segregated society, this means that most crime is intra-racial, rather than inter-racial.  African-Americans are disproportionately both victims and victimizers.  Concentrating policing on high-crime areas inevitably assumed a character that could easily be construed as “racist.”

Second, the vast majority of people living in high-crime areas are not criminals.  As a result, “stop-and-frisk” involves stopping and frisking lots of innocent people in order to catch a few guilty ones.  All those innocent people have every right to feel that they are being harassed merely because they fit some demographic profile.  Not much effort seems to have been committed to trying to ease this feeling, if it even would be possible.

Third, policing appears to be a “coarse art,” instead of a “fine art.”  Ordinary fallible and flawed human beings have to figure out how to carry out the strategies defined by their superiors.  Often they have to carry out these policies while in contact with difficult, non-compliant people.  Moreover, America is awash in firearms.  Far too often, these interactions end in violent death.   Often, but not always, the circumstances are gray rather than black and white.  Afterwards, prosecutors, judges, and juries are more inclined than not to reject condemning the police.  Politicians pile-on, affirming that the laws are applied in a discriminatory way, or voicing platitudes, or asserting an unquestioning integral defense of police conduct.

If you stay at this policy long enough, you’re going to anger an awful lot of people.  It’s like building up the “fuel” for a forest fire.  All that is required for a conflagration is a lightning strike or a series of them.

Trayvon Martin.  Michael Brown.  Eric Garner.  Laquan McDonald.  Walter Scott.  Freddy Gray.  All were lightning strikes that set off a conflagration.  On the one hand, the “Black Lives Matter” protest movement sprang up.  On the other hand, American views on the state of race relations shifted from optimistic to pessimistic.  Recently, Baltimore prosecutors have suffered a series of stinging defeats in the effort to prosecute police officers in the arresting-to-death of Freddy Gray.  Then, police in Minnesota and Louisiana shot to death two black men in what should have been minor incidents.  More lightning strikes.

Protests erupted in many cities.  In Dallas, a black sniper used the occasion of one such peaceful protest to kill five police officers.

It has been difficult to hold an intelligent conversation about these matters.  For one thing, the subject is both complex and painful.  For another, it coincides with other complex and painful controversies.  The white populist revolts in both major parties.  The mass shootings and terrorist attacks.  Are these issues inter-related, with a common solution, or is it just our bad luck that they arose at the same time?

[1] See Barry Friedman, “Thin Blue Lines,” NYT Book Review, 3 July 2016.  Friedman reviews Heather Mac Donald, The War on Cops:, and Malcolm Sparrow, Handcuffed.

Legacies of the Violent Decades.

The 1970s and 1980s were violent decades.[1] The rate for all violent crime rose from about 500/100,000 people to almost 800 between 1975 and 1991. The robbery rate rose from about 200/100,000 people in 1975 to about 270 in 1991. The rate for aggravated assaults rose from about 230/100/000 people to about 450 in 1992. From 1975 through 1991 the murder rate bounced around between 8 and 10/100,000 people. In 1990 there were 2,245 homicides in New York City (five a day), and 474 homicides in Washington, DC (more than one a day).

State and federal governments lashed out against this spike in crime with the weapons at hand. The federal government directed billions of dollars to the states to increase the number of police and to build prisons to house the people the police caught. Sentences were lengthened for some crimes and mandatory minimums were imposed to limit the freedom of judges. Between the early 1970s and 2009 the number of people in state or federal prisons quadrupled to about 1.5 million people.

Then the rates of violent crime began to drop. The rate for all violent crime fell by 51 percent, to a level 25 percent below the 1975 rate. The rate for aggravated assault fell from its 1992 peak by 48 percent, roughly back to where it had been in 1975. The rate for robbery fell by from its 1991 peak by 60 percent, to a level 51 percent below the 1975 rate. The murder rate fell from its 1992 peak by 41 percent, to a level slightly below its 1975 rate. In 2014 there were 328 homicides in New York City (less than 1/day) and 104 homicides in Washington, DC (two/ week).

This remarkable change has begun to spark debate, just as did the remarkable spike in violence in America before 1990. One question is what has happened since 1990 to bring down the rate of violent crime? Experts are not entirely sure how to answer this question. They do agree on some things. First, targeted policing is a big part of the answer. New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton introduced the use of computer data and crime mapping (“CompStat”) to identify targets for police efforts.   Police began to concentrate their efforts on these identifiable trouble spots. Drugs used to be sold right out on the street. Aggressive policing pushed the sales in-doors. That didn’t do much to cut down on drug use, but it did make drive-by shootings a lot less lethal. The “broken windows” strategy came to be widely adopted. Second, tougher sentencing and mass incarceration played a lesser role than advocates expected.[2]

A second question is about what to do going forward? On the one hand, what is to be done with the large numbers of people still locked up from the previous decades? If they are released, will they just return to their old ways? Can people convicted of non-violent crimes be safely released and better served with drug-treatment programs? Going forward, should the length of sentences be reduced?

On the other hand, should the aggressive policing that accompanied the reduction in crime be scaled back? When crime rates are high and people are afraid, they are willing to tolerate aggressive forms of policy that they will not tolerate when crime rates are low and people feel secure. “Stop and frisk” has come under heavy fire. It has been argued that this kind of policing—which may have created the situation in which Eric Garner died—has begun to alienate law-abiding people in the communities on which the police focus. Can the police operate in an environment in which they are widely viewed as the enemy?

See: “The Senator from San Quentin”; “Military Police”; Death Wish.”

[1] Erik Eckholm, “With Crime Down, U.S. Faces Legacy of a Violent Age,” NYT, 14 January 2015.

[2] Which is not the same as saying that they played no role.

MPs–Militarized Police.

The police response to civil unrest in Ferguson, MO, brought to public attention the “militarization of the police.” The irony is that rioting and looting of the sort that took place around the edges of the legitimate protests in Ferguson is one of the events in which a more robust police presence is appropriate. What got lost in the discussion was the far more common use of “militarized” police.

Once upon a time, the local authorities responded to trouble by calling the National Guard. Then a lot of “civil unrest” hit American cities in the 1960s-1970s: riots, rock concerts run amok like Altamont, holed-up radicals, hostage situations, and just crazy people packing a lot of fire-power.

Police department Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams became common after the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) pioneered them in 1967. Subsequent events multiplied the demand and the occasions on which they might be used. The Columbine school massacre in 1999, the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, and the escalating violence of the war on drugs all argued for a more militarized police force as the first-responders to unimaginable dangers. The Department of Homeland Security, which is now headquartered at the old St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC, has poured $35 billion into up-arming local police forces. Some of the results are so ludicrous that they attract even media attention: armored vehicles (MRAPs) that were produced to respond to IEDs in Iraq, and helicopter gun-ships.

Far more important, however, have been the militarization of attitudes among police officers. Incessant talk of policemen as the front-line soldiers in “wars” on crime, drugs, or terror combines with training in military tactics to create the ideal of a “warrior cop.” One can’t help but wonder if police officers start to think of citizens as a foreign enemy. This is far removed from the boiler-plate slogan “to serve and protect.” Radley Balko, author of Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids (Cato Institute Press, 2006) and The Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (PublicAffairs, 2013), warned of the danger long before it began to make headlines

One thing that alarms observers has been the conversion of SWAT teams from a sensible “extreme case” response into a common feature of policing. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that SWAT team raids take place on an average of 124 times a day. Some observers wonder if having the capacity to conduct such operations creates a pressure to use it. The vast majority of SWAT operations now occur in support of drug searches. Apparently, theory holds that when policemen looking like big fighting insects bust down the door, suspected criminals will be too petrified to destroy the evidence by flushing it down the toilet. Carried to an extreme, these operations have included raids on illegal barbershops, cockfights, Tibetan monks on a peace pilgrimage in Iowa, and a guy who bet too much on a college football game. Several dozen people have been killed during these raids, although the most common victim is a family dog shot by amped-up policemen responding to incessant barking. (But who hasn’t felt that impulse in the middle of a summer night?) “The militarization of America’s police,” The Week, 1 August 2014, p. 11.)

The well-known gap between the American citizens and the military that protects them from foreign dangers, the broad reach of NSA communication searches, and the militarization of policing raise questions about the direction in which American democracy is headed.