Heather Mac Donald discussed her New York Times Bestseller, The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe (just out in paperback), with our own Ben Weingarten. What follows is a full transcript of their discussion from 2016, slightly modified for clarity.
You can also listen to their interview in its entirety below. And to instantly receive Encounter Books Podcast interviews like these upon publication, be sure to subscribe.
Ben Weingarten: Heather, if I were to summarize your book in a short sentence, it would be this: “Black lives matter, and — in the absence of a rebirth of the black family — if you agree, you should support law enforcement practices over the last two decades.” Is that a fair summation?
Heather Mac Donald: That’s very fair. There’s no government agency more dedicated to the proposition of “Black lives matter” than the police. And when the police back off of respectful but proactive policing, crime goes through the roof and black lives are lost.
Ben Weingarten: Now, your life’s work as I see it, as encapsulated in this book, runs up against a prevailing narrative which is very pervasive. And that prevailing narrative is too many people are in jail, and we have a systemically racist criminal justice system, as proven not only by high profile shootings of blacks by police officers, but disproportionate numbers of blacks that are in prison today. Make your best case for why that prevailing narrative is wrong, and your book is right.
Heather Mac Donald: All you need to do is look at crime data. That narrative is based on an assiduous suppression of the facts about crime. The narrative instead proceeds by comparing law enforcements data — whether it’s police stops, pedestrian stops, or incarceration rates — to population figures. And when you look at that, it is undoubtedly the case that blacks are overrepresented among people that the police stop and arrest, and among people in prison. Blacks are about 38% of the state prison population, but they’re 13% of the national population. So, people like President Obama, the ACLU, the Justice Department, certainly vast swaths of the media, look no further and conclude, “Aha, there must be systemic racism in the system.” But, what that narrative ignores is black crime. And that’s an uncomfortable truth, but unless we look at it head-on, without distortion or apology, you’re not going to understand the criminal justice system.
Blacks are 13% of the population but they make up about two-thirds of all people committing violent crime. In New York City, which is absolutely emblematic of America’s big cities, blacks are 23% of the populations but they commit nearly 80% of all shootings, and 70% of all robberies. When you add Hispanics to those shootings, you account for 98% of all shootings in New York City. Whites by contrast are about 33% of New York City’s population. They commit less than 2% of all shootings, and 4% of all robberies. What those statistics mean Ben, is that, every time, virtually every time in New York City, the cops are called out on a “gun run,” meaning somebody has been shot, and there’s a risk of a retaliatory shooting. With 98% of all shootings in New York being committed by blacks or Hispanics, they [the police] are almost always sent to minority neighborhoods in support of minority victims, and they will have received a description of a minority suspect. The cops don’t wish that. It’s a reality forced upon them by the reality of crime.
And that is true as well of the prison population. It is driven by violent crime and property crime. And unfortunately again, given as you refer to in the beginning of the program, the out of wedlock birth rate, and the fact that so many black children, males in particular, are being raised without fathers, they are being absorbed into a gang life. They are not getting the self-control needed, and their rates of crime are simply much higher on a per capita basis than other groups.
Blacks are overrepresented among people that the police stop and arrest, and among people in prison...that's an uncomfortable truth, but unless we look at it head-on, without distortion or apology, you're not going to understand the criminal justice system.
Ben Weingarten: Now, speaking to the empirical evidence here, one of the trends that you address in this book is the so-called “Ferguson effect.” Based on the evidence and the statistics that you’ve studied in large cities across the country, has crime risen since the Michael Brown-Ferguson case? And if so, what are its primary drivers?
Heather Mac Donald: Well I identified the Ferguson effect, made it a national concept in May 2015 when I saw crime going up very dramatically — double digits all across cities in America. And I identified the cause of that crime spike as the effect of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the ideology around it — the virulent hostility being directed at cops both rhetorically and in actuality. When they [the police] go to make a stop or investigate a crime in largely urban black areas in cities now, cops find themselves surrounded by hostile jeering crowds. People calling them racist, sticking cellphones right in their faces. This isn’t a question of standing on a curb and filming an interaction. It’s a question of going right into the investigatory scene and interfering with an officer’s authority. There’s that kind of pressure coming to bear on the news.
Also, the discourse that you mentioned which holds that policing is racist — they’re [the police] getting that message. It’s being sent by President Obama on down, and they are backing off of that large realm of discretionary policing that they don’t have to engage in. They can simply wait for there to be a 911 call and a victim, and go running to that call, take a crime report and wait for the next 911 call. That’s the type of reactive policing we had until the mid-1990’s, when New York City revolutionized policing. They’re backing off of discretionary proactive policing, and crime is going up.
When I first proposed this Ferguson effect hypothesis, it caused a firestorm of controversy. The American Society of Criminology put out a call to take me down. They said this [hypothesis] was preposterous because the idea that policing has that great an effect on crime is still an odious concept to many on the criminological left. One of the early Ferguson effect deniers, Richard Rosenfeld, at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, has subsequently changed his mind. He now says in a report for no less than the Justice Department, the National Institute of Justice, that no other hypothesis fits the data besides the Ferguson effect of officers backing off.
Last year 2015 finished with a 17% increase in homicides in the 56 largest cities. That is nearly unprecedented. A one- year spike of that magnitude is extremely serious…Had homicides gone down 17% in one year, every police chief across the country would be popping champagne corks. And it’s worse in cities with large black populations. Their homicide [rate] is up between 50-90%. Cleveland finished 2015 with a 90% increase in homicides. Among the victims were, in September alone, three children under the age of five, who were gunned down in drive-by shootings. Nobody knows their names. We all know the name of Michael Brown, the thug that was killed by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, that triggered the Black Lives Matter movement. But when black children are killed by other blacks, there’s very little attention paid to it.
Ben Weingarten: One of the things that I found interesting about your book is that you actually speak to the victims of these crimes, and what happens when you see crime rates spiking, and the police basically backing off. You went and actually observed community police meetings and walked the halls of apartments in the South Bronx and elsewhere, speaking to…the “forgotten man and woman” in all of this…law-abiding citizens who live in what are in effect war zones. Tell us about what you observed, and its bearing on your thoughts on crime and policing?
Heather Mac Donald: Well, I’ve never gone to a police community meeting in inner city areas in which I don’t hear some variation of the following demands from the community members there. These are black and Hispanic law-abiding residents saying “You arrest the dealers and they’re back on the street corner the next day. Why can’t you keep them off the streets?” “I smell weed in my hallway, can’t you do something about that?” “There’s kids hanging out in my lobby or on my stoop, smoking marijuana and harassing people. I’m scared to go outside.” I met a cancer amputee in the Mount Hope section of the Bronx, Mrs. Sweeper, who told me, “Please Jesus, send more police.” She was terrified to go get her mail in her building lobby because of the kids trespassing there, dealing drugs. The only time she felt safe was when the police were there. I went to a police community meeting in the 41st precinct of the South Bronx. The residents were begging for a police watchtower on the corner.
These [watchtowers] are…large contraptions that look like twice the height of a lifeguard tower at the beach that the police sit in, to try and watch who is doing the gang shootings. Now a lefty criminologist, somebody like a Bernard Harcourt, or the late Michel Foucault, would see this watchtower and would say, “Uh huh, the police with the Panopticon and oppressing communities with the surveillance state…” That’s because they don’t live in these communities. The law-abiding residents need and want police protection. Mrs. Sweeper, the cancer amputee, she was also talking about the one summer that they had the police watch tower on their corner. She said, “That was the peacefullest (sic) summer we ever had.” She could actually sit outside on her block and enjoy the summer. Otherwise, people in these neighborhoods where these kids are engaged in the most mindless of drive-by shootings, have to worry about going outside. And as you say, until the black family is reconstituted, the second-best solution in these neighborhoods is the police.
Until the black family is reconstituted, the second-best solution in these neighborhoods is the police.
Ben Weingarten: Your critics might concede that police do good in keeping safe law-abiding individuals in these communities, but they will point to numbers like for example those put out in The Washington Post, regarding black unarmed victims in police investigations or police activity. You actually go in and analyze those numbers very closely, what are your findings?
Heather Mac Donald: Well, The Washington Post did a database last year of all police shootings. It was an open source project. They looked at news reports to get what they view as the most comprehensive database of fatal police shootings. And they found that last year, 2015, the police shot about 987 people fatally. 26% of those police shooting victims were black. Now, that was not a very helpful number to rest the Black Lives Matter narrative on because 26% black victims is far less than would be predicted by black violent crime rates because police shootings are going to be predicted by where police are encountering violent, armed and resisting suspects. And, given the disparities and street crime, that’s largely in minority neighborhoods today…One thing I would also say, based on that 26% figure — it turns out that a much bigger proportion of white and Hispanic homicide victims are killed by the police than black homicide victims. 12% of all white and Hispanic homicide victims are killed by the police compared to 4% of all black homicide victims who are killed by the police. To me, that looks like if we’re going to have an “Anti-cop Lives Matter” movement, it would make more sense to call it “White and Hispanic Lives Matter.”
But looking at a smaller category of unarmed black victims, there were 36 unarmed black males shot by the police in 2015 compared to 31 unarmed white males. Now, just in absolute numbers, I don’t think those are necessarily massive numbers compared to what we’d been lead to expect in the media. There’s over 6,000 blacks who are killed each year — that’s more than white and Hispanic homicide victims combined. So those 36 so-called “unarmed black male victims” of the police are a minute fraction of the 6,000 black homicide victims who were killed overwhelmingly by other blacks.
But even that number is completely deceptive because when you bury into the Post database, and read the actual news accounts behind those numbers which the Post does not really foreground, you find that a large number of those so-called “unarmed black victims” were reaching, trying to grab the officer’s gun, or beating an officer with other parts of his equipment like the radio. If a suspect tries to grab an officer’s gun, he has very clearly put the officer on notice that he intends to kill him. So that is not exactly what most people think of an unarmed. He was only unarmed for lack of success but he was certainly trying to be armed. And other members of that category were accidental shootings by the police in the course of a justified shooting. In one case, in Yonkers, New York, the cops were in an undercover gun buy from a very, very serious felon who was gunrunning in New York. And after trying to steal the undercover detective’s money, the gun felon started shooting, and the officer shot back and by mistake hit a bystander who was standing on the corner, a 62-year-old man. That was a tragic shooting. The man happened to be black, but to put him into the unarmed black male victims of police shootings, implies that he’s somehow there because of his race, because that’s what this category is all about. So even that category, I think, is not what it appears to be.
Ben Weingarten: Another contentious issue concerns mandatory minimums — in particular with crack cocaine versus powder cocaine — mandatory minimums which were actually supported by none other than Rep. Charlie Rangel and several other members of today’s Congressional Black Caucus, despite the fact that those mandatory minimums are called racist; and more broadly, the issue of non-violent versus violent offenders, and how non-violent offenders lives are basically ruined, and they’re being brought into prisons at disproportionate rates. Speak a little bit to those issues.
Heather Mac Donald: Well you’re absolutely right, Ben. The war on drugs, which people like Michelle Alexander in her extraordinarily duplicitous book, The New Jim Crow, argue…is an explicit effort to re-enslave blacks, and return them to second class citizenship at best, was instigated by the Black Caucus nationally, locally in places like New York City. The Rockefeller drug laws were demanded by bourgeois residents of black communities who saw the devastation of open air drug markets. Major Owens, a Congressman, said this is the worst devastation that we’ve ever experienced since slavery. And so that aspect…that there was the demand…coming from black communities that were seeing the crack epidemic, gets completely erased from the narrative, as well as the fact that the meth[amphetamine] penalties were identical to crack penalties. The same amount of meth possession would yield you the identical mandatory federal sentence as crack. But meth possession is overwhelmingly white and Hispanic. Only about 2% of federal meth cases are black. So if we’re going to call the crack penalties racist, anti-black, then we’re going to have to call meth penalties anti-white.
But the other aspect of the whole mass incarceration conceit that you point out, is this notion that the prison population is driven by drug crime, and that’s just not the case. Currently, about…54% of all state prisoners are there for violent crime. About 19% are there for property crime. The state prison population is 88% of the nation’s prison population, so that’s really where the vast majority of prisoners are. In the state prisons, only 12% are there for drugs, and only 4% are there for drug possession. And the vast majority of those drug possession cases, which again, are only 4% of the state prison population, have been pled down from a trafficking charge. Virtually nobody is in prison for smoking a joint. If you’re sent to prison for a drug crime, you have a very, very long criminal history. Prison today remains a lifetime achievement award for persistence in criminal offending. You have to work very hard to get yourself sentenced to prison. The vast majority of convicted felons are either given community supervision that is probation, rather than being sent to any kind of confinement, or they’re given jail. Only about 32% of all convicted felons actually get a prison term. And again, those who do get prison have either committed a serious violent felony, or they have a long, long record.
The same amount of meth possession would yield you the identical mandatory federal sentence as crack. But meth possession is overwhelmingly white and Hispanic. Only about 2% of federal meth cases are black. So if we're going to call the crack penalties racist, anti-black, then we're going to have to call meth penalties anti-white.
Ben Weingarten: One aspect of your book that I feel has been underreported broadly is the idea that there are a whole slew of individuals who stand to profit by perpetuating the narrative that there is systemic racism in the criminal justice system, and that there needs to be redress, legal and otherwise. You write about how there are monitors, legal monitors, who have in effect captured the system without producing any real positive results. And it’s kind of akin to what’s happened in education, where you have administrators making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, whose work has almost no bearing on providing a better education system. Speak a little bit to that capture of the criminal justice system.
Heather Mac Donald: Well, the Obama administration has put more police departments under Federal control than any other administration in history. They use a 1994 law that allows the Justice Department to sue police departments for alleged patterns or practice of civil rights violations. And when the Justice Department strong-arms a [police] department usually into just agreeing to avoid the massive cost of a lawsuit, most departments sign what’s called the “consent decree,” which is a seemingly, nominally, voluntary agreement. And these are extremely baroque agreements with incredible details about how quickly you have to submit your reports. And you’re put under charge of a federal monitor. And so these monitors are extremely highly paid. I mean the one in Detroit was just raking in millions of dollars. And they enforce these draconian timelines on [police] departments to write their reports to the monitor. The Los Angeles Police Department spent $50 million in it’s first year alone, just on the paperwork requirements, and had to take officers off of patrol duty simply to get all the paperwork done. [Editor’s note: The Los Angeles Police Department reportedly spent $40 million it’s first year, and $50 million annually in subsequent years.]
And if the departments are not compliant to the absolute letter, if they’ve got 98% of their reports to the federal monitor on time, but 2% are late because there was a triple homicide, and they had to take off the paper pushers to go back to the streets and try and solve this case, the monitor will declare them out of compliance, and will therefore extend the time to which they have to be under federal control. So, this is an extremely wasteful use of police activity, and unfortunately the Justice Department’s methodology uses that same crime-free analysis to determine whether the [police] department is engaged in biased policing.
Ferguson…where Michael Brown was shot…they’re putting that department under federal consent decree. They wrote an auspicious report on the department that again, just looked at racial disproportions and arrests, and said not one word about what crime rates are in Ferguson, Missouri. And I can guarantee you that the crime rates in Ferguson are no different than New York City as far as the racial disparities.
By and large, unfortunately, the black clergy there are still committed to a narrative of black victimology, and will not address really the core root of the crime problem which is fathers not taking responsibility for their kids.
Ben Weingarten: Lastly, you tie in your book…President Obama’s time as a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago to your overall “War on Cops” thesis. Explain that to our listeners.
Heather Mac Donald: Well, Obama was in Chicago. It was his first job in the 1980s, and he was utterly blind to the problems that were really driving the black crime rate and poverty there. This was a time when you had a black mayor, you had a black police chief, growing black power and yet Obama was still committed to the idea that the problems in the black community were all driven by white racism. Even as in his own autobiography, it’s extraordinary there are practically no black male adults. He’s interacting exclusively with women. The families, the males are out on the streets. They’re not raising their children. And even then…the children were being killed by young killers all of fatherless homes. And that problem continues today…out-of-wedlock childbearing in Chicago is about 80%. And you can talk to young boys who say, “I needed my father. I need my father.”
But you have new problems in the black community…[of] multipartner fertility, where the mother has four kids by four different fathers, and the father has six kids by three different mothers. So, trying to figure out …the family unit becomes more and more complicated. And there are a few voices in Chicago — I talked to one, Phillip Jackson of the Black Star Project, who said “If we don’t marry, we perish.” But by and large, unfortunately, the black clergy there are still committed to a narrative of black victimology, and will not address really the core root of the crime problem which is fathers not taking responsibility for their kids.