Dallas, and the thin blue line

It was my luck to be on Wisconsin Public Radio Friday morning to discuss the latest American horror, the murder of five police officers in Dallas during an anti-police protest the previous night.

The irony, of course, is that the protesters, who were exercising their First Amendment right to protest the deaths at the hands of police of two black men in Baton Rouge, La., and the Twin Cities, were running the opposite direction while the people whose profession they were protesting were heading toward the gunfire to protect the protesters.

The additional irony is that whatever the protesters want changed is likely to be overlooked in the wave of outrage over the assassination of five police officers by someone who used the pretext of the protest as his opportunity. The shooter was interested in killing whites, including white police officers.

The danger of commenting upon police is that very few people know what being a police officer is like. My own experience is slightly more than most people, but far less than being an actual officer — from having covered crime (including the murder of a law enforcement officer) and courts, including police disciplinary matters, and from police ridealongs, which are always most educational even on slow nights. However, we taxpayers have the right to have opinions about what our elected officials allow the police to do and prohibit the police from doing.

Facts are necessary:

The U.S. violent crime rate, according to the FBI, is, you’ll notice, where it was around 1970.

The U.S. homicide rate, you’ll notice, is where it was in the 1950s.

And perhaps this is why. The next time someone complains about all the Americans in jail, ask that person if they would trade reducing the prison population for increasing the crime rate.

Or perhaps this is why. U.S. gun ownership is at a record high. None of those more than 300 million guns loaded themselves, aimed themselves and fired themselves, including Thursday night’s murderer.

All of those, of course, could be examples of correlation without causation. It also seems that while crime may be down, fear of crime is up. Part of that is because the media is able to report what might be considered infamous crime — child kidnappings, gruesome murderers, carjackings with children inside the carjacked car, etc. — from anywhere in the nation, whether or not it’s pertinent to you.

Government generally and some police specifically don’t help. Last week I posted about this Ohio police chief who claims children shouldn’t be allowed to leave home unaccompanied until they’re 16. Police handouts of identification kits and fingerprinting of kids, which have good intentions, carry with them an unspoken message that it’s a dangerous world out there. (As usual, if you’re a certain age you can see these things and wonder how we survived a world without, among other things, bicycle helmets.)

The other thing government does is pass laws that police have to enforce, whether or not the laws make sense. Recall Eric Garner, shot to death by New York police while he was out on bail for a charge of selling untaxed cigarettes. Libertarians question the resources governments use in enforcing drug laws. The Minnesota death the Dallas protesters were protesting was after a traffic stop for a broken taillight. The most outrageous finding to come from the investigation into the Ferguson, Mo., police was that city officials apparently expected the police to fund city operations by writing as many citations as possible, leading to comments that the city looked at its residents as ATMs.

Here’s an inconvenient fact reported by the Volokh Conspiracy:

USA Today reports that “The number of police officers shot and killed in the USA is 44% higher than at this time last year following the Dallas ambush Thursday night that left five officers dead, according to data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.” And indeed last year there were, according to the group, 41 fatal shootings; the 26 so far this year puts us on pace for about 50 fatal shootings in 2016, about 22 percent more than last year. (The 44 percent number is because only 18 of the 41 killings last year came by this time of the year.)

But if one looks at the fund’s data for 2005 to 2014, one sees that (a) 2015’s 41 fatal shootings was unusually low, and (b) there is a good deal of year-to-year variation. Indeed, the only three years from 2005 to 2015 that saw fewer than 49 fatal shootings of police officers were 2008 (41), 2013 (33), and 2015 (41), and most years saw at least as big a change in raw numbers as we’re expecting for 2015 to 2016. Most important, if you average the totals from 2005 to 2015, you get almost 53 fatal shootings per year — about the pace we’re seeing for this year.

I share the sorrow and the anger over the murders of the police officers in Dallas, and indeed over murders of police officers generally. But we shouldn’t let the accident that there were fewer fatal police shootings than normal in 2015 make us worry that there’s any broad upward trend.

Many people’s views of police are based on their past experiences with police, which tend to be negative either as defendant (technically a traffic ticket is an arrest) or as victim of a crime. A county sheriff once told me that his department interacts with 80 percent of the public once, and of the remaining 20 percent interacts with 80 percent of them once more. Assuming his math is correct, about 4 percent of police business is with, shall we say, repeat customers.

One caller to WPR, a black woman, claimed that black men feel stalked by police, in her opinion. I wonder how much of that is racism, as she seemed to claim (and she was certainly more thoughtful on the subject than the caller who followed her), and how much of it was police training to note the unfamiliar. A police officer seems unlikely to stalk a black man the officer knows from non-unfriendly contacts. A police officer is trained to notice what does not fit, including who does not fit, which is why if you’re a young person out at night, you are more likely to see a police officer ask what you’re doing than if you’re, say, 50.

That also gets to a point about the divide between police and the people they’re sworn to protect, including at the cost of their own lives. One reason living in small towns is superior to urban areas is that you are much more likely to know your local police officers in contexts other than as I listed two paragraphs ago. Police officers I’ve known over the years include relatives, a former Boy Scoutmaster of mine, my daughter’s former softball coach, part of a local two-man guitar act, and, of course, parents of children our children’s ages. I probably know more police than the average person for professional reasons, but it never hurts, one way or another, to get to know police officers in a non-professional context.

Several columnists wrote about the Dallas police and its chief, including Radley Badko:

… one particularly unfortunate aspect of the murder of five Dallas police officers Thursday night is that the city’s police department is a national model for community policing. Chief David Brown, who took office in 2010, has implemented a host of policies to improve the department’s relationship with the people it serves, often sticking out his own neck and reputation in the process. At risk of stating the obvious, no sane person would argue that these murders would have been okay if they had occurred in a city with a less community-oriented police department. Nor am I suggesting that the killer or killers represent any legitimate faction of the police reform or racial justice movements. But because Dallas is grieving right now, and the rest of us with it, it’s worth pointing out that in its police department, the city has much for which to be proud.

There are always calls for unity after events like Thursday’s, the largest one-day death of police officers since 9/11. Unity over the horror ends up disappearing when it’s time to figure out what to do about it. (And that’s preferable to disagreements over what the problems are, such as what’s caused the shrinkage of this country’s middle class.) Most people have not had repeated negative encounters with police, so most people may not think it’s a problem. Those protesting police forget that blacks dying at the hands of police are a minute percentage compared to the deaths of blacks at the hands of other blacks.

We also discussed Hillary Clinton’s not being prosecuted over emails that, had a federal employee or soldier done a fraction of what she did, would have resulted in that person’s firing from federal service and prosecution. The Dallas protesters were protesting what they see as police officers’ not being held accountable for their actions, and Hillary Clinton is not being held accountable for her actions either. So both sides perhaps see laws as not applying to the “little people.”

No law enforcement agency is perfect, because the criminal justice system is not perfect, because all human creations are flawed. There are dangers to excessive crackdowns on police, as explained by Heather Mac Donald back in May:

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey has again drawn the wrath of the White House for calling attention to the rising violence in urban areas. Homicides increased 9% in the largest 63 cities in the first quarter of 2016; nonfatal shootings were up 21%, according to a Major Cities Chiefs Association survey. Those increases come on top of last year’s 17% rise in homicides in the 56 biggest U.S. cities, with 10 heavily black cities showing murder spikes above 60%. …

Mr. Comey’s sin, according to the White House, was to posit that this climbing urban violence was the result of a falloff in proactive policing, a hypothesis I first put forward in these pages last year, dubbing it the “Ferguson effect.” The FBI director used the term “viral video effect,” but it is a distinction without a difference. “There’s a perception,” Mr. Comey said during his news conference, “that police are less likely to do the marginal additional policing that suppresses crime—the getting out of your car at 2 in the morning and saying to a group of guys, ‘What are you doing here?’ ” …

But the evidence is not looking good for those who dismiss the Ferguson effect, from the president on down. That group once included Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, who was an early and influential critic. Mr. Rosenfeld has changed his mind after taking a closer look at the worsening crime statistics. “The only explanation that gets the timing right is a version of the Ferguson effect,” he told the Guardian recently. “These aren’t flukes or blips, this is a real increase.”

A study published this year in the Journal of Criminal Justice found that homicides in the 12 months after the Michael Brown shooting rose significantly in cities with large black populations and already high rates of violence, which is precisely what the Ferguson effect would predict.

A study of gun violence in Baltimore by crime analyst Jeff Asher showed an inverse correlation with proactive drug arrests: When Baltimore cops virtually stopped making drug arrests last year after the rioting that followed the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, shootings soared. In Chicago, where pedestrian stops have fallen nearly 90%, homicides this year are up 60% compared with the same period last year. Compared with the first four and half months of 2014, homicides in Chicago are up 95%, according to the police department. Even the liberal website Vox has grudgingly concluded that “the Ferguson effect theory is narrowly correct, at least in some cities.”

Despite this mounting evidence, the Ferguson effect continues to be distorted by its critics and even by its recent converts. The standard line is that it represents a peevish reaction from officers to “public scrutiny” and expectations of increased accountability. This ignores the virulent nature of the Black Lives Matter movement that was touched off by a spate of highly publicized deaths of young black men during encounters with police. As I know from interviewing police officers in urban areas across the country, they now encounter racially charged animus on the streets as never before.

Accountability is not the problem; officers in most departments are accustomed to multiple layers of review and public oversight. The problem is the activist-stoked hostility toward the police on the streets and ungrounded criticism of law enforcement that has flowed from the Obama administration and has been amplified by the media. …

Policing is political. If a powerful segment of society sends the message that proactive policing is bigoted, the cops will eventually do less of it. This is not unprofessional; police take their cues, as they should, from the messages society sends about expected behavior. The only puzzle is why many Black Lives Matter activists, and their allies in the media and in Washington, now criticize police for backing off of proactive policing. Isn’t that what they demanded? …

Officers must of course treat everyone they encounter with courtesy and respect within the confines of the law. But unless the ignorant caricaturing of cops ends, there will be good reason for FBI Director Comey and the rest of us to worry about what the rising tide of bloodshed holds in store for U.S. cities this summer.

Who is hurt the most? The “rich” can buy alarm systems and even hire private security. Middle-class people can buy guns and, if necessary, move. Poor people generally have none of those options, including leaving their high-crime neighborhood.

 

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