Heather Mac Donald: The Truth About Crime, Race, and Policing in America

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Minnesota based Center of the American Experiment CEO John Hinderaker introduces Heather Mac Donald who shares the statistical truth about crime, race, and policing in America.

John Hinderaker: Welcome everyone, I am John Hinderaker, President of Center of the American Experiment. Our program today features Heather MacDonald, a Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute in a Contributing Editor of City Journal. She is a graduate of Yale University, Cambridge University, and Stanford University Law School. Heather is the author of The War on Cops, a New York Times bestseller published in 2016. She has testified before the House Judiciary Committee on issues related to policing, and is America’s foremost expert on the intersection of crime, race and policing. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions described Heather as “The greatest thinker on criminal justice in America today. Heather McDonald.

Heather McDonald: Thank you so much John and its an honor to be back at the Center of the American Experiment, the feistiest think tank in America. If anybody can bring Minnesota, and the United States, in fact, back to sanity it the CAE, so thank you for having me on.

On May 25th, four Minneapolis police officers arrested a man for passing a counterfeit $20 bill. One of the officers kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nearly 8 minutes while Mr. Floyd was handcuffed on the ground and pleading that he couldn’t breathe. Mr. Floyd died of a heart attack during the arrest. The next day, Minneapolis Mayor, Jacob Frey, announced that whatever the investigation into Mr. Floyd’s death revealed, quote, “being black in America should not be a death sentence”. Mayor Frey interpretation of Mr. Floyds horrifying end, that it was a function of his race, instantly became universal. That idea was coupled with the claim that Mr. Floyd’s death was representative of an epidemic of racially biased police killings of black men. Together these two claims triggered an explosion of violence in Minneapolis and across the country, destroying thousands of livelihoods, turning city streets into war zones, and ripping apart the very foundation of law and order. Police officers were shot at, slashed, and assaulted with bricks and bottles. Their precinct houses and cruisers were firebombed. Courthouses were vandalized. Firefighters let public and private property burn to the ground rather than risk being attacked by the rioters. Professional thieves used stolen cars as missiles to hurdle into stores, which the then cleaned out through the shattered glass. The flames of that terrible week have burned out, but the attack on civil order continues. Monuments to the nation’s Founders have been torn down and defaced. Anarchist colonized portions of Seattle and New York with impunity. Violence has become the responsive choice to any criminal justice’s decision, the activist do not like. In mid July, vandals tried to torch the Georgia Department of Public Safety as part of ongoing protests against the police in Atlanta. In Salt Lake City vandals broke the windows of the District Attorney’s office and pepper sprayed police officers after the district attorney declined to prosecute an officer-involved shooting. Courthouses in police precincts remain favored physical targets. In Portland, for weeks on end, Antifa thugs have hurled bombs at the federal courthouse. they have tried to blind federal agents with lasers. And across the country, police officers are routinely attacked as they try to make a lawful arrest. The unchecked anarchy of those riots and their long aftermath have sent a clear message to criminals, no one is controlling the streets. Gang shootings and homicides has spiked nationwide as a demoralized police force pulls back from discretionary stops and arrests. In the weeks following the Floyd riots, homicides were up by 100% in Minneapolis, 200% in Seattle, 40% in St Louis, 240% in Atlanta, and 182 percent in Chicago. In New York City, shootings have more than double so far in 2020 compared with last year. In June, 97% of New York shooting victims were people of color. Since George Floyd’s death, at least 35 children under the age of 18 have been fatally shot, nearly all black. We’ve been here before.

In 2015 and 2016 homicides in the U.S. are the largest increase in nearly 50 years, following the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014. Brown’s death fueled the first iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement. Cops backed off from proactive policing, having been relentlessly told that they were racist, for example, to question someone hanging out on a known drug corner at 1:00am, hitching up his waistband as if you had a gun. As a result of this decline in discretionary enforcement, another 2000 blacks lost their lives in 2015 and 2016, compared to 2014 numbers. The rapid rise of crime over the last two months makes that first version of what I’ve called the Ferguson effect look like child’s play. Today’s Ferguson Effect 2 .00 or better, the Minneapolis Effect, promises far worse, especially since the Black Lives Matter narrative, that policing in the U.S. is lethally racist, has been amplified by every mainstream institution in the country. A lot is riding therefore on whether that narrative about the police is correct, not just thousands of lives, but the very possibility of a civilized society. Essential criminal justice practices are being rapidly dismantled in the name of fighting alleged law enforcement bias. So is it true, as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden announced after Mr. Floyd’s death, that every time a black person leaves his house his family members need to fear for his safety from the police? It is not. The idea that the police are wantonly killing black men is a creation of a politicized press and an elite establishment dedicated to the idea that racism is America’s defining trait.

Today I’m going to examine three types of evidence for the Black Lives Matter claim about police racism. The raw numbers on police shootings and deaths, individual cases like Mr. Floyd’s, and academic research. The raw numbers are these. Every year the police fatally shoot about a thousand people, the vast majority of whom are threatening the officer or bystander’s with deadly force. About 50% of those police fatalities are white and about 25% are black. The Black Lives Matter folks look at 25% number and proclaim police bias since blacks are about 13% of the population. That is the wrong benchmark, however. If there is one thing you should take away from today’s discussion, it is that police activity must be measured against crime, not population ratios. Every article you read, every news story you watch in the mainstream media will compare police activity to a population benchmark because that is the only way it’s the Black Lives Matter narrative can be sustained. Such an analysis ignores the fact that policing today is data-driven. Officers are deployed to where people are most being victimized and that is in minority neighborhoods. And it is in minority neighborhoods where officers are most likely to interact with armed violent and resisting suspects.

Here are the victimization data.

Nationwide, blacks between the ages of 10 and 43 die of homicide at 13 times the rate of whites, according to the CDC. In Minnesota, blacks of all ages die of homicide at 12 times the rate of whites. You might think that the Black Lives Matter activists would care about such loss of black life, but you would be wrong. They ignore those black deaths because the victims are killed overwhelmingly, not by the police, not by whites, but by other blacks.

Here are the criminal offending data.

In the 75 largest U.S. counties which is where most of the population resides, blacks constitute around 60% of all murder and robbery defendants according to the Bureau of Justice statistics. Though they are only 15% of the population in those counties. Nationwide, blacks commit homicide at eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined. In Chicago blacks commit about 80% of all shootings and homicides though they are less than a third of the population. Whites commit about 2% of all shootings and homicides in Chicago, though they too are less than a third of the population. In a typical year blacks in St Louis, commit all or nearly all homicides though they are less than half of the population. In New York City blacks commit a little less than 75% of all shootings on average, though they are 23% of the city’s population. Whites commit less than 3% of all shootings in New York City, though they are less than 34%, though they are 34% of the City’s population. These crime disparities have enormous consequences for police use-of-force. The biggest determinant of officer behavior is civilian behavior. The greater the chance that officers confront armed and resisting suspects, the more likely they are to escalate their own use of force, and that chance is far higher in black communities. As you will see, blacks are actually shot less by the police than their crime rates would predict, and whites are shot more. The percentage of white and Hispanic homicide victims who were killed by a cop is 3 times higher than the percentage of black homicide victims who were killed by a cop. So that 25% or so share of fatal police shootings each year comprised of black victims, when measured against a crime benchmark, does not support the Black Lives Matter narrative.

What about the individual case?

Mr. Floyd’s death was immediately portrayed as what is known in literary theory as a synecdoche, a part that stands in for a whole. In this case, the whole of anti-black police violence. But if we conclude from that one case, however shocking, that the police are biased against black men, we could just as easily conclude, from other individual cases, that the police are biased against white men.

Take the death of Tony Timpa which adumbrated the death of Mr. Floyd. In 2016 the 32 year old schizophrenic called 911 in Dallas to report that he was off his medication, frightened and needed help. Three Dallas police officers responded and kept him for face down on the ground for 13 minutes with a knee to his back, all the while joking about Timpa’s mental illness. Timpa was handcuffed and had not resisted or threatened the officers. He pleaded for help more than 30 times, exclaiming that the cops were killing him. Eventually Timpa stopped moving or making any sound, as officers continue their wisecracks. After Temple was loaded into an ambulance an officer said, I hope I didn’t kill him. Timpa was already dead from homicide caused by physical restraint and cocaine. Very few Americans outside of Timpa’s family know his name. His death did not make international news or spur widespread riots. Because Timpa was white, his death did not fit the Black Lives Matter narrative and thus was of no interest to the media. That same year a cop in Mesa, Arizona unleashed a barrage of gunfire from his AR-15 riffle at a 26 year old man in a motel who had been reported as having a gun. The victim was down on his hands and knees in the quarter outside his motel room trying to comply with the conflicting demands that the sergeant was screaming at him and begging, please don’t shoot me. Like Timpa, the victim, Daniel Shaver, was white. In 2015 the year that the Black Lives Matter movement became a national phenomenon, a 50 year old white man in Tuscaloosa involved in a domestic violence incident ran at the officer with a spoon and was fatally shot. A white 25 year old male in Des Moines led the police on a car chase and walked quickly towards the officer when he got out of the car and was fatally shot. A white 21 year old male in Akron escaped from the grocery store robbery on a bike and didn’t take his hand out of his waistband when commanded to do so and was fatally shot. None of these victims were armed. No one knows these men’s names either, because they don’t help the narrative. Had any of these victims been black, however, there is a good chance that they too would have become international cause celebra. The widespread perception that questionable police shootings occur exclusively or almost exclusively against black males is a function of selective coverage.

Let’s look more closely at unarmed victims of fatal police shootings.

According to the Washington Post database of fatal police shootings there were nine unarmed black victims of fatal police shootings in 2019 and 19 unarmed white victims of fatal police shootings. The Washington Post defines unarmed generously to include suspects beating an officer with his own gun or fleeing a car stop with a loaded semi-automatic pistol in their car. Those 9 allegedly unarmed black victims of fatal police shootings make up .1% of all black homicide victims, assuming that the 2019 black homicide count resembles that of 2018, when 7400 blacks were killed, more than all white and Hispanic homicide victims combined. .1% is not a large percentage, to say the least.

After I publicize the 2019 tally of unarmed black victims in early June, The Washington Post went back into its database to re-categorize as unarmed as many armed black victims of fatal police shootings as it possibly could. No new information spurred this reclassification, the database had been closed for 6 months. Despite its best efforts, The Post came up with only six more black victims, previously deemed armed, now miraculously disarmed, to bring the total of unarmed black police victims in 2019 up to 15. That 15 represent .2% of all black homicide victims, still a drop in the bucket. So individual cases, including unarmed cases, do not support the Black Lives Matter narrative. The claim that the death of George Ford was a result of racism, rather than bad tactics and a generalized callousness, is pure supposition with no supporting evidence.

What did academic studies say about the question of systemic police bias?

Well, I could site a 2019 paper from the prestigious proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for the proposition that there was no racial disparity in police shootings once violent crime is taken into account. I will not do so, however. The author’s retracted that study earlier this month because I had cited it verbatim in Congressional testimony and in several articles. Are you seeing a pattern here? The author, a professor of Michigan State University and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland, had come under enormous pressure from the criminology profession to disavow their study, thanks to its entry into public consciousness on the wrong side of policing and racism questions. I received a personal email from the author’s asking me to cease and desist citing it, even though the researchers stand by the papers findings and methodology. I will honor their request which is more courtesy than they’ve shown me, having attributed to me a position that I’ve never taken to justify the retraction. At the end of the call today there will be an auction for the cause or study that you would like to cancel, and I will promise to site it in an article. Candidates may include, but are not limited to attacks on cis-heteronormativity, the New York Times 1619 project, or oped’s calling for the removal of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC.

In any case, I am not particularly handicapped by the ban on the 2019 PNAS article. As it turns out, the authors forgot to retract another article of theirs’ from 2018 which reaches the identical conclusion, that violent crime, not race, determines police shootings. That 2018 study analyzed two years of fatal police shootings, from 2015 and 2016. About 1050 whites and 500 blacks were killed by the police in those two years. Calculated against population ratios black were 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than whites. You will come across this 2.5 figure in the mainstream media as proof of police racism, but remember our rule, avoid population benchmarks when analyzing police activity, crime is the proper benchmark as the authors of the 2018, and now retracted, 2019 studies well understand. When you compare fatal police shootings to homicide reports and arrests, the likelihood of being shot in the authors words quotes “flips completely”. Whites are about three times more likely to be fatally shot than Blacks once their homicide rates are taken into account. There is also no evidence of bias in fatal police shootings when benchmarked against overall violent crime rates. Other studies have reached the same conclusion. Harvard Economist Roland Fryer has found racial discrimination, has found no racial discrimination in police shootings. Officers in 10 large cities and counties were more likely to shoot a suspect, without first being attacked, if the suspect was white than if the suspect was black. An analysis by the Center for Policing Equity also concluded that whites were disadvantaged compared to blacks when it comes to lethal force. An economist at Maryland Specific Institute for Research and Evaluation concluded that if blacks are killed by police officers at a rate higher than their population numbers, it’s because of blacks higher rate of arrest, not their skin color, again a question of the benchmark. So a robust body of empirical work disproves the racism charge.

What about the counter evidence?

What little there is concerns non-lethal police force. That same Harvard economist, Roland Fryer, analyzed the forms that New York police officers fill out after stopping a suspect. Fryer found that blacks were 21% more likely than whites to have an officer use non-lethal force on them, such as an officer placing his hands on a suspect or drawing his weapon without using it. But Fryer’s study made some questionable assumptions. He categorized suspects as quote “perfectly compliant with an officer’s instructions” for example, based only on the fact that the officer did not check out any boxes on the stop form regarding suspect behavior. The absence of a checkmark is not the same thing as an affirmative judgment of perfect compliance as Fryer himself acknowledged in an email to me.

Other studies suggest that blacks resist officer orders at a rate higher than whites, which would produce any disparities regarding officer use of non-lethal force. A 2005 paper by criminologists at the California State University randomly sampled 400 police reports from a Southern California Police Department’s 200 cases, excuse me, randomly sampled 400 police reports with Southern California Department that includes 200 cases where the suspect resisted, and 200 where the suspect complied. It found that resistance was more likely in high-crime areas, and as the inevitable corollary of this fact, that black suspects were more likely to resist arrest than white suspects. In fact, race was one of the most significant predictors of resistance, with black suspects being four times as likely to resist than whites. This finding accords with studies from 1995 and 2001, that officers who come into contact with non-white suspects are assaulted at a higher rate, and that most assaults on officers occur by suspects with criminal histories. Given the lack of racial disparities in police shootings, those who argue that officers use non-lethal force disproportionately against blacks, have the burden of showing that any disparities in non lethal force are not the product of suspect resistance. Proponents of the bias thesis have not met that burden. With the current tidal wave of hatred crashing down upon the police further delegitimating their authority, suspect resistance will go up, that resistance will increase the chance of officer use of force which if videotaped and stripped of the civilian behavior that preceded, it will trigger new waves of civil violence.

Let’s briefly review car stops, another enduring topic in the case against cops. Studies claiming bias in traffic stops, as usual, use the wrong benchmark, population. The relevant benchmark is the rate at which different groups break traffic and equipment laws. There was a short period in the early 2000s when it criminologists could still study such matters and keep his job, but that window quickly closed. Before it did, New Jersey and North Carolina speeding studies showed the blacks speed more. On the New Jersey Turnpike, for example, at twice the rate of whites, a disparity that increases over 90 miles an hour. Any black cop will tell you that if he stops a black driver the first thing out of the driver’s mouth is, you only stop me because I’m black. The cop will respond, no I stopped you because you ran that red light or were driving 25 miles over the speed limit. I cannot comment on Senator Tim Scott’s much circulated claims that he has been groundlessly stopped while driving. To do so I would need to know the facts about each stop. We can stipulate, however, that law-abiding black men are more likely than law-abiding white men to be stopped and questioned at some point in their lives because they meet a suspect description. That higher chance of being stopped is a result of the fact that one third of all black men have been convicted of a felony. With that large a proportion of criminal offenders in the broader population the chances are higher that an innocent black male will share some characteristic, make of car say or physical traits, with a suspect who is being sought by the police. That is a crime tax paid uniquely and tragically by law-abiding blacks. The solution to it is not to demonize the police, it is to lower black crime rates.

The charge that blacks are at daily risk of white supremacy extends beyond civilian interactions to civilian-on-civilian interactions. As LeBron James has tweeted quote, “We’re literally hunted EVERYDAY/EVERYTIME we step foot outside the comfort of our homes”. This too is a sentiment at odds with the data. In the universe of all interracial violence between blacks and whites, blacks commit 85.5% of that interracial violence, white less than 15%. These numbers exclude homicide since they are based on victim self-reports, but adding homicide would not change the proportions. This black on white violence manifests itself in flash mobs, whereby youth rampage through downtown business districts assaulting passers-by and looting stores, in wilding, in the knockout game, and in the usual brutal armed robberies. Those Minnesotans with memories that have not been yet euthanized by the PC police may recall two such attacks in Minneapolis in August 2019. In one, about a dozen people on the Target Field Plaza beat and kicked a man while ripping off his pants and shoes and stealing the contents of his pockets. They then jumped on the victim like a trampoline, hit him with planting pots and ran him over with a bike. In the second incident a man using a cell phone outside a downtown bar was kicked and punched by a group of youths until he was unconscious. The mob then stripped him of iPhone, wallet keys, and cash. As of last September, Mayor Jacob Frye was calling for more police officers to try to quell a 50% jump in such a vicious robberies in downtown Minneapolis. That was then and now is now, of course, and today Mayor Fry has joined the movement to replace police officers with social workers.

Then there are the gratuitous assaults.

In New York City this summer, even before the riots, a 92 year old woman was slammed into a fire hydrant in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park hitting her head. A 78 year old woman was punched in the head in Brooklyn, and an 80 year old man was knocked to the ground dragged and robbed in the Bronx. If any of these victims have been black, and there assailants white, these too would have been international scandals, given non-stop coverage by the world’s press as proof of America’s savage white supremacy. But just as we turn our eyes away from black on black crime, we are just as adamant about looking the other way when it comes to black on white crime. The press routinely admits the race of unapprehend crime suspects in it’s news coverage, a practice at odds with the public good, and has started foregoing mugshots of arrestees, since such descriptions and photos are said to give the public a mistaken impression of who commits most street crimes. Actually, mugshots and suspect descriptions give an accurate sense of urban violence. This squeamishness about even acknowledging the reality of black crime is not consistent with an alleged regime of white supremacy. The narrative about police civilian violence is also the reverse of the truth. Black males make up about 40% of all cop killers though they are 6% of the population. A police officers is anywhere from 15 to 30 times more likely, depending on the year, to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male is to be killed by a police officer. Expect such, such attacks to rise as the political establishment and the media fuel anti-cop hatred further.

Meanwhile, there is hardly a single aspect of the criminal justice system that has not being undone to avoid disparate impact on blacks. Felonies are being reclassified as misdemeanors to lessen the number of blacks sent to prison. Prosecutors are declining to prosecute low-level offenses like public drinking, disorderly conduct, graffiti and turnstile jumping. Bail is being eliminated. Gang databases are being purged. Undercover police units that get illegal guns off the street are being disbanded. Because computers are allegedly as racist as people, valuable crime-fighting tools like facial recognition technology and analytical crime software are being mothballed. Universities and school districts are severing their ties with pariah police department’s. The chancellor of the University of California Los Angeles apologize profusely for allowing Los Angeles Police Department to use a university parking lot for a staging area during the local George Floyd riots. Such a practice threatens the school’s marginalized voices, the chancellor said, and would not be repeated. Officers are demoralized and despairing. In no other profession are you condemned as a racist by the country’s elites from the day you step on the job, a judgment that you cannot clear yourself of. Retirements are up nearly 75% in the New York police department since the George Floyd riots. In Minneapolis shell-shocked officers are filing for disability at record rates. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio recently canceled two future police academy classes as part of New York City’s defending movement. He needn’t have bothered. Those may be the last police classes the city can muster. Officers on the job are telling potential recruits to avoid it at all costs.

And now with shameless hypocrisy the anti-cop brigades are blaming the police for pulling back from precisely the types of enforcement that they so roundly condemn as racist. The Brooklyn Borough president and a city council member groused to the New York Times recently that the police had not responded to complaints about illegal dice games, loud music, and other public order infractions. Had the police taken action, of course, they would have risked more charges of racism. But people who live with street disorder understand that it is the breeding ground of violent crime. It is out of those rowdy gatherings of hundreds of youth on street corners that shootings often emerge. The law-abiding residents of high-crime communities have been the initial victims in this growing wave of lawlessness. These are the people whom the press never seems to talk to. People like an elderly cancer amputee in the Mount Hope section of the Bronx who told me, please Jesus, send more police. The only time she felt safe to go down to a building’s lobby was when officers were there, because it was otherwise colonized by trespassing youth selling drugs and smoking weed. As long as you see the police, she said, everything’s a okay, you can come down and get your mail and talk to decent people. These are the people who, like vulnerable senior citizen, invariably beg for more police protection and can’t understand why the criminal justice system can’t keep the dealers off the streets and locked away. These good bourgeois citizens are of no interest to the activist press. The only people who listen to their pleas are the police. Nor do the black toddlers who have been gunned down in their bedrooms, front yards and parents cars, over the last month, carry any import to the Black Lives Matter movement. Since their assailants are of the wrong race and do not wear a badge. In Chicago, as of June 24th, 23 children under the age of 12 have been shot, four of them fatally. Overall 2,243 people have been shot in Chicago, as of July 25th. One person every 2 hours and 14 minutes. 395 of those shooting victims died. The Chicago Police had shot seven people, three fatally as of July 25th, virtual all armed and dangerous. That police toll represent .3% of all Chicago shooting victims. None of the children who have been shot this year in Chicago, or elsewhere, have been shot by a cop. The only thing that will slow this false narrative about police racism is if white children are to be gunned down in drive-by shootings. The allegedly anti-racist press ignores young black victims but goes into crisis mode when white children are shot as the reaction to those rare school shootings show. Cumulatively, there are several Newton Connecticut’s every year in the black community. Only the police pay consistent attention, attention.

It’s is not just lives at stake. This attack on law enforcement undermines our justice system and fundamental rights. If it continues, we could descend into civil war. It is essential therefore to counter the lies about the police with the truth. And we must hope that reason still has a place in public discourse. Thank you for your attention and thank you to the Center for American Experiment for having me on today.

John Hinderaker: Thank you, Heather for that fantastic presentation.

Heather McDonald: Thank you, John.

John Hinderaker: Thank all of you for viewing today’s program. At the Center of the American Experiment we are standing up for law enforcement and working to dispel the myths that currently surround policing. Our polling indicates that in our state, Minnesota, 85% of residence support their local police departments. In order to support law enforcement, we are running radio ads and have erected 38 billboards around the Twin Cities area. Leftists don’t want the majority to be heard from, so they have been attacking our billboards to try to shut us up. So far, leftists have vandalized our billboards seven times in just the last week. This one is revealing. These leftists want to shoot the police. They spray-painted the Antifa symbol, an A inside a circle, as well as a hammer and sickle on the billboard and that, of course, is the symbol of Communism. So we know what ideology is behind the vicious attacks on police.

If you would like to help us defend law enforcement you can do so by contributing to our campaign. If you are watching through the event page today, you should see a donate button below your screen. If you are on Facebook or YouTube visit our website AmericanExperiment.org that’s Americanexperiment.org and hit the Donate button. We greatly appreciated it. With that, thank you again, Heather and thanks to all of you for watching. 

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