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.