As long as police are vilified, more black lives will be lost in high-crime areas.
Vanita Gupta, left, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, with Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)
In early May 2016, a 90-year-old woman in northwest Baltimore was severely beaten during a home invasion. Police found her barely conscious on the floor, unable to move or call for help. This was the second time in two months that she had been the victim of a burglary. She was hospitalized for three weeks following the beating and died in the hospital. Police concluded that the suspect in the May assault was familiar with the neighborhood.
On May 31, 2016, a 71-year-old woman in northwest Baltimore was raped and robbed in her home. The assailant took jewelry and cash from the victim’s purse, then stole her car and crashed it. A bystander helped the rapist out of the crashed car; the thug fled.
These heinous crimes occurred as Baltimore was experiencing the bloodiest year in its history, measured on a per capita basis. Shootings, homicides, and robberies surged after the April 2015 riots triggered by the accidental death of drug dealer Freddie Gray following an arrest. Nearly two dozen children were killed in 2015. Baltimore’s homicide count matched that of New York City’s, a city 13 and a half times Baltimore’s size.
Unfortunately, such crime merits but a few passing references in the 163-page report on the Baltimore Police Department released yesterday by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The Justice Department accuses the Baltimore police of a pattern or practice of violating blacks’ civil rights. Justice’s methodology for reaching that conclusion is by now drearily familiar: Because blacks are stopped and arrested by the Baltimore police at a higher rate than their representation in the Baltimore population, the police are guilty of racial bias.
This use of a population benchmark to analyze police activity is preposterously misguided, given the large disparities in rates of criminal victimization and crime commission. In 2015, more than 90 percent of Balimore’s homicide victims were black, even though blacks are only 63 percent of the city’s population. Though the police department does not report the race of criminals, it is certain that at least 90 percent of homicide and shootings suspects in Baltimore are also black. To expect police activity to match population ratios when crime commission is not evenly spread throughout the population is either disingenuous or disqualifyingly ignorant.
Yet it’s hard to place exclusive blame on assistant attorney general for civil rights, Vanita Gupta, for this travesty of common sense and sound methodology. President Barack Obama routinely blasts the nation’s police for their alleged systemic bias, because blacks are overrepresented in police activity. Just hours before five officers were assassinated in Dallas, Obama was at it again, lambasting the police for the fact that blacks are arrested nationally at twice the rate of whites. Obama was silent as usual about the reality that blacks commit homicide at eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined; their robbery and shooting rates are even more disproportionate.
The Justice Department’s latest sally against proactive policing has been ecstatically received by the mainstream media, which have dwelt lovingly on the policing disparities highlighted in the report: 44 percent of the stops made by the Baltimore police between 2010 and 2015 occurred in two small, predominantly black districts containing only 11 percent of the city’s population; blacks accounted for 86 percent of all criminal offenses charged by the police; blacks are arrested for drug possession at five times the rate of whites.
The report claims that the arrest data are particularly skewed for more discretionary types of enforcement, thus allegedly revealing police bias in its most exposed and overt form. Blacks accounted for 87 percent of resisting-arrest charges; 89 percent of charges for making a false statement to an officer; 84 percent of failing-to-obey-an-order charges; 86 percent of hindering or obstruction charges; 83 percent of disorderly conduct arrests; and 88 percent of trespassing-on-posted-property arrests.
In fact, those numbers are not skewed at all compared to blacks’ 86 percent portion of all arrests, which include property and violent crimes. Low-level-misdemeanor enforcement simply tracks felony crime, and is not racially driven.
Never asked in the report is what those numbers represent. What, for example, goes on in those two districts accounting for 44 percent of all stops? Might they contain a vastly disproportionate number of criminal victimizations? Is open-air drug trafficking terrorizing the law-abiding residents there? We never learn. The report presents such data as prima facie evidence of arbitrary, bias-driven policing. But if stops are so concentrated in those two districts, the police are not in fact indiscriminately stopping every black person, but are presumably targeting the highest-crime areas — unless DOJ thinks that cops in those two districts are for some mysterious reason even more racist than those in other districts.
It is simply beyond the ken of the attorneys in DOJ’s Civil Rights Division that perhaps blacks make up 87 percent of resisting-arrest charges because they resist arrest at a higher rate than their population ratios, but consistent with their crime rates. Ed Norris served as deputy commissioner in the New York Police Department and as the Baltimore police commissioner from 2000 to 2002. The “level of violence in the streets here [in Baltimore] and the willingness to fight with the police is much worse than what I experienced in NYC,” he says. “It really does need to be seen to understand what it’s like here.”
The media have endlessly recycled the DOJ finding that between 2010 and 2015, 34 blacks were stopped at least 20 times and seven blacks stopped at least 30 times. One man in his 50s was stopped 30 times in four years, mostly for loitering and trespassing. By contrast, no other person of any other race was stopped more than twelve times in those five years, according to the report.
Might it be relevant to know something about those stop subjects? An infamous gang-banger whose gang is engaged in tit-for-tat retaliatory shootings against rival gangs might easily be stopped four times a year; that only 34 suspects had that stop record in a city with the sixth highest violent-crime rate in the country and a population of 620,000 hardly shows racial bias. Seven blacks were stopped six times a year and one black man stopped seven times a year. What were their criminal histories and behavior on the street? We are not let in on the secret. Until we do, no inference of bias is valid.
The report makes much of drug arrests. The DOJ lawyers trot out the usual national surveys that show that blacks report using drugs at a slightly higher rate than whites (without accounting for frequency of use over the previous month). If blacks in Baltimore are arrested for drug possession at five times the rate of whites, the lawyers conclude, it can only be because the police are vindictively harassing them. But drug enforcement follows community calls for service. The police enforce drug laws where residents ask them to, and that is overwhelmingly in minority areas plagued by open-air drug markets. If residents of white neighborhoods lived in the thrall of the drug trade, they would be demanding enforcement and enforcement would follow. Police bring possession charges as stand-ins for trafficking charges, which members of street drug rings are careful to avoid through a tight choreography of facially lawful transactions.
The report is assiduously blind to, and silent about, the burdens faced by residents of high-crime neighborhoods. It complains about racial and economic segregation, then proceeds as if street behavior and street crime are identical across Baltimore. The authors are shocked by evidence that suggests that “trespassing enforcement is focused on public housing.” One can only conclude that the civil-rights lawyers are unaware of the shootings and muggings that characterize public housing, as well as of the relationship between trespassing and more serious forms of crime. The authors likely do not rely on the police to keep trespassers away from their homes and can count on informal social controls like parents to maintain public order. They are offended by the police practice of trying to disperse large groups of people hanging out. Yet the most frequent complaint made in police–community meetings in high-crime areas concerns just those congregating throngs of youth, because law-abiding residents know from experience that it is out of those knots of loiterers that assaults and shootings emerge. Those same law-abiding residents do not understand why the police can’t simply arrest everyone for loitering or truancy. The report cites a Facebook post from a sergeant as evidence of racism and brutality: “Do not treat criminal[s] like citizens; citizens want that corner cleared.” I have never been to a police–community meeting in the inner city where residents are not begging for the corners to be cleared.
The report contemptuously bandies around the phrase “zero-tolerance policing” to try to stigmatize proactive policing. (That is a phrase used almost exclusively by police critics and almost never by police departments.) But it is the residents of high-crime areas who have zero tolerance for street disorder. Do the police look to make stops following a gang shooting to try to deter retaliation? You bet. And when they back off from proactive policing, crime explodes. After the Freddie Gray riots, drug arrests dropped and shootings soared 75 percent over the course of 2015.
It is unclear how the DOJ lawyers think the police should respond to the high levels of street disorder in high-crime areas. Proactive policing is an attempt to regain control of the streets, on behalf of the law-abiding. If trespass stops and loitering summons are illegitimate, what are the police to do? Yet the report also cites complaints about a lack of police response in “poor, minority areas” and allegations that the police do not take crime seriously there — a calumny. Hard-working detectives could solve every crime in the inner city if they could find witnesses and victims willing to cooperate; they usually can’t. The report faults the police for allegedly leaving black neighborhoods “unguarded” during the Freddie Gray riots — this from the same White House that criticizes the police for an over-aggressive response to the wanton destruction of livelihoods and property.
This ignorant analysis is just one more reckless attack on police legitimacy. On Wednesday, when the media were not trumpeting this latest Obama administration finding of systemic police bias, they were denouncing Donald Trump’s thoughtless sally on Tuesday about Hillary Clinton and the power of Second Amendment advocates to stop her alleged court-packing schemes. Fair enough. But almost no attention was paid to the far more credible threat against police officers in Chicago from gang-bangers hoping to kill more cops in revenge for alleged police racism. While the Baltimore DOJ report is far from an overt invitation to attack officers, it belongs to a mendacious narrative about policing that is contributing to an environment of virulent hatred against cops and that is obstinately blind to the realities of crime. As long as that narrative is dominant, more black lives will be lost, and probably also more blue ones.
— Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The War on Cops, released in June.
EDITORIAL: Justice in Baltimore