Heather MacDonald on Proactive Policing

Heather MacDonald argues in the City Journal that a significant increase in violent crime has been the result of a decline in proactive and broken windows policing. Proactive policing involves “pedestrian stops—otherwise known as stop, question, and frisk. Broken windows policing “responds to low-level offenses such as graffiti, disorderly conduct, and turnstile jumping.” Let’s assume, as seems plausible, that MacDonald is correct that such policing is effective and violent crime has resulted from its decline.

MacDonald lays the blame for this situation at the feet of a variety of groups, but mainly activist groups such as Black Lives Matter, but also the ACLU and judges. These groups protest and bring lawsuits arguing that such policing disproportionately targets minorities because a greater percentage of minorities are stopped than the minority represents in the population. But MacDonald powerfully notes that this is the wrong way to test this claim. The comparison should not be to the number of the minorities in the population, but to more relevant figures such as the percentage of murder offenders from that minority group. And under that standard, MacDonald claims that blacks are not being disproportionately targeted.

If MacDonald is correct, then clearly the activists are engaged in improper behavior. And some of the blame for the reduction in policing is due to lawsuits and threats of lawsuits as well as activist protesting.

While the activist groups are behaving badly in this instance, what about the police force? In some respects, the police—either the departments or the officers themselves—appear to be responsible, because they have stopped engaging in proactive policing.

MacDonald argues otherwise:

That officers would reduce their engagement under such a tsunami of hatred is both understandable and inevitable. Policing is political. If the press, the political elites, and media-amplified advocates are relentlessly sending the message that proactive policing is bigoted, the cops will eventually do less of it. This is not unprofessional conduct; it is how policing legitimacy is calibrated. The only puzzle is why the activists are so surprised and angered that officers are backing off; such a retreat is precisely what they have been demanding.

This is a serious and important point, but it is not clear it is entirely correct. The police are the experts here and if they believe (according to MacDonald, correctly) that proactive policing is necessary to protect citizens, especially black citizens, then they should be pushing back against the activists. They should be holding press conferences, explaining the issues, and defending their policy.

Of course, a large part of the problem is that the police in Chicago (the main focus of MacDonald’s article) are engaged in systematic wrongdoing and corruption. The Chicago police do not have the credibility to argue for their position in part because of their misconduct.

MacDonald shows some awareness of the police responsibility for matters:

The Police Accountability Task Force report did make a useful call for more tactical training of officers—though finding funding for such training will be difficult if the report’s gratuitous new police inspector-general position is also created. As the Task Force implies, there undoubtedly are Chicago police officers who drastically need an attitude tune-up in courtesy and respect; if they cannot shed their hardened, disrespectful demeanors, they shouldn’t be on patrol.

That’s a useful recognition, but it fails to acknowledge the much more serious problem of police corruption and cover-ups of police murder.

In the end, it is very important to keep one’s eye on the ball in this area. There are at least two players here—the police and the activists—who are not consistently right or wrong. In many cases, the activists are engaged in counterproductive activities and should be criticized. But in other cases, the police are the problem and should be condemned. And in these cases, the activists are sometimes correct. Neither side can be fully trusted. It is for observers to make the judgments necessary rather than to instinctively support one side in the dispute.

Reader Discussion

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on April 22, 2016 at 08:19:02 am

Chicago Mayor Rham Emanuel has stated that Chicago cops are reluctant to engage in proactive policing, and he apparently believes that the nationwide push for police accountability has made cops “go fetal”, leading to an increase in crime.

If police officers are policing less proactively, it’s because they realize that a single mistake or split second judgment under pressure has the potential to trigger protests and lynch mob hysteria. If law enforcement is more cautious, it’s because the majority of officers realize that during most shifts in major metropolitan areas they will encounter a number of suspects who are disproportionally African American. If the police injure or kill a black suspect, it’s now assumed by some that the action taken was motivated by racism, bias and hate. That’s a no-win situation.

Racism exists. Racist cops exist and you don’t have to be black to be outraged by videos of apparent police misconduct. Individual and community worldviews regarding disparate treatment and racism are reinforced when police misconduct occurs. The looting and violence cannot be condoned, but that doesn’t mean the underlying issues of estrangement and frustration felt by the protesting communities should be dismissed, and that we should accept the negative “effect” of fetal cops.
Instead of responsibly leading as Professor Rappaport suggests, opportunistic politicians have abandoned moral and ethical duties to educate and scale back the anti-cop rhetoric. President Obama’s knee jerk reaction to the shooting of Trayvon Martin only fueled an already dangerous situation by suggesting, without evidence, racist murder by police. These optics created a false narrative that has racially asterisked every shooting of a black suspect by a white cop regardless of circumstances. This is as disingenuous as dehumanizing the rioters and dismissing their underlying frustration and pent up anger.

Reason cannot be emancipated from the conversation. We do not live in a color blind utopia. Racial inequalities and tensions exist. And it’s also reasonable to believe that the vast majority of police officers aren’t racists intent on hunting down young black men. The cops are doing a tough job and our communities need to recognize the personal, financial and professional avalanche of risk they face in the current environment.
The resulting polarization of “us vs them” erodes the social contract necessary for effective policing and safe communities. The individual human beings that make up both “badge” and “community” need to be mindful that context is everything, and that our understanding may not be the definitive understanding for all involved.

Carl J. Brizzi
Former Marion County Prosecutor and Criminal Defense Attorney

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Carl Brizzi
on April 22, 2016 at 13:00:40 pm

"...opportunistic politicians have abandoned moral and ethical duties to educate and scale back the anti-cop rhetoric."

Now that is a "drop the mic" statement. Unfortunately, the likelihood of this occurring is rather remote as politicians have historically seized upon such inflammatory rhetoric as a means of further solidifying their *appeal* to the voters and their hold on power and influence.

It may be argued (as with many other issues) that it is not the voters who are leading this headlong rush into chaos but rather our elected officials who sensing the opportunity mentioned above will (mis)"educate" the voters into believing that a) a grave injustice is occurring and b) that only he / she will alleviate this condition.
The fact that such an elected official espouses support for such an analysis lends credibility to it. and on and on we go!

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on April 24, 2016 at 12:34:35 pm

Thanks but I'll put my support behind the police. The upsurge in street demonstrations and violence has been sadly apparent, I daresay it will get even worse. To keep it short, I can't imagine needing help from a mindless street mob, "no justice, no peace", but I don't want to imagine a police force cowed and restricted by ugh, "progressive' forces, neither the mob nor the by now laughable progressives are a force for civility and a humane society,
This is not a march on the Bastille but if the boobs continue they may get something they never wished for, the politicized, centralized, power State.

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john trainor

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