Proactive policing still matters
By Heather Mac Donald
December 28, 2017
Cop critics who assiduously ignored the 20 percent increase in the national homicide rate over the previous two years have suddenly become enthusiastic purveyors of crime statistics. Fueling their newfound interest in crime data is the announcement that the New York City homicide rate is at a near-60-year low. That homicide drop shows that proactive policing is irrelevant to crime levels, say these policing skeptics. The New York Police Department’s reported-stop activity plummeted earlier in this decade as a result of a groundless trilogy of racial-profiling lawsuits against the department. Yet crime in New York ultimately continued its downward trajectory. Therefore, proactive policing like pedestrian stops is unnecessary, these cop critics say.
Their arguments are specious.
New York City’s formerly high-crime neighborhoods have experienced a stunning degree of gentrification over the last 15 years, thanks to the proactive-policing-induced conquest of crime. It is that gentrification which is now helping fuel the ongoing crime drop. Urban hipsters are flocking to areas that once were the purview of drug dealers and pimps, trailing in their wake legitimate commerce and street life, which further attracts law-abiding activity and residents in a virtuous cycle of increasing public safety. The degree of demographic change is startling. In Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, for example, the number of white residents rose 1,235 percent from 2000 to 2015, while the black population decreased by 17 percent, reports City Lab. In Bushwick, Brooklyn, the number of whites rose 610 percent over that same decade and a half; the black population was down 22 percent. Central Harlem’s white population rose 846 percent; the black share dropped 10 percent. In 2000, whites were about three-quarters of the black population in Brownsville-Ocean Hill; by 2015, there were twice as many whites as blacks. In 2000, whites were one-third of the black population in Crown Heights North and Prospect Heights; now they exceed the black population by 20,000. The Brooklyn Navy Yards has now been declared the next cool place to be by the tech industry. Business owners are moving their residences as well as their enterprises to the area.
This demographic transformation has enormous implications for crime. A black New Yorker is 50 times more likely to commit a shooting than a white New Yorker, according to perpetrator identifications provided to the police by witnesses to, and victims of, those shootings. Those victims are overwhelmingly minority themselves. When the racial balance of a neighborhood changes radically, given those crime disparities, its violent-crime rate will as well. (This racial crime disparity reflects the breakdown of the black family and the high percentage of black males — upwards of 80 percent in some neighborhoods — being raised by single mothers.)
The high-crime areas of Baltimore and Chicago have not been gentrified. Baltimore is experiencing its highest per capita murder rate for the third year in a row. While Chicago’s homicide numbers are down somewhat this year, thanks to the aggressive use of shot-spotter technology, they remain at a level far higher than in the past decade. The year 2017 will mark only the second time since 2003 that homicides surpassed 600, according to the Chicago Tribune. The de-policing that hit Baltimore and Chicago in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Freddie Gray Baltimore riots, and the protests over the shooting in Chicago of Laquan McDonald has not been counteracted by significant demographic change, unlike in New York City. Law-abiding residents of Baltimore and Chicago’s high-crime areas remain dependent on the police to maintain order. Unfortunately, the Baltimore Police Department will be even harder pressed to provide that order, thanks to a federal consent decree finalized in the last week of the Obama administration. That consent decree puts crippling bureaucratic roadblocks in the way of low-level public-order enforcement, such as the enforcement of loitering and trespass laws. Residents of high-crime areas beg the police to clear their corners of miscreants, but the officers’ hands are tied. U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions rightly sought a delay in the implementation of the Baltimore consent decree, but the federal judge overseeing the case denied his request. Baltimore’s law-abiding poor citizens will just have to hope for some other form of intervention.
The claim that proactive policing is a useless crime-fighting strategy ignores a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences. An overwhelmingly liberal group of criminologists concluded that stop, question, and frisk shows statistically significant short-term crime-reduction effects; the long-term effects have not been measured. Hot-spots policing, often just another name for stop, question, and frisk, also produces statistically significant crime-reduction effects, according to experimental evidence. No other policing strategies assessed by the NAS team produced more powerful results. If, after two decades of proactive-policing enabled gentrification, New York has maintained its crime drop despite the drop in documented stops, that doesn’t mean that places like Chicago and Baltimore can do without such interventions. Stops in Chicago dropped 82 percent in 2016; there were 4,300 people shot there last year, overwhelmingly black, or one person every two hours.
In New York, however, informal social controls are now supplementing if not supplanting formal police control in formerly high-crime areas. That is the ideal world. An active police presence is a second-best solution to public safety; the best solution is family. The NYPD’s unwavering commitment to Compstat — the weekly crime-analysis meetings in which top brass grill precinct commanders about crime in their jurisdictions — has also kept crime under control, by imposing accountability on police leaders and focusing attention relentlessly on emerging crime patterns.
Libertarians and the anti-cop Left have also seized on this year’s 33 percent drop in gun murders of police officers to declare that there has been no war on cops. Tell that to officers in the streets who lived for three years under the pall of the ubiquitous false narrative that policing is systemically racist and that cops are engaged in an epidemic of racially biased police shootings of black men. Tell it to officers who encountered acute levels of hostility during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, like the Chicago cop who said that he had never experienced so much hatred in his 19 years on the job. The war on cops was always predominantly a rhetorical one. But last year, at the height of the anti-cop frenzy, gun murders of officers rose 53 percent. Back then, the cop-haters assiduously ignored that increase. Now, however, they are trumpeting this year’s drop in gun murders.
It is too soon to know definitively if the animus toward officers has fallen and if any such fall is behind the welcome drop in officer slayings. But without question, there has been a sea change in rhetoric and policy from the White House. Trump and Sessions do not take every opportunity to accuse the cops of systemic and lethal bias — yet when the facts warrant, the Sessions Justice Department has vigorously prosecuted and denounced cops who violate their oath of office. Sessions and Trump have repeatedly voiced their support for law enforcement, without coupling that support with a denunciation of phantom police racism.
Equally important, the mainstream media have lost interest in their anti-cop narrative. They now lack an echo chamber in the White House, and focusing on Trump’s alleged misdeeds is an all-consuming activity. That shift in rhetoric may have saved some officers’ lives this year. But the drop in gun murders of officers this year hardly disproves the fact that the Obama administration ramped up a demoralizing and unjustified war on the cops during its second term.
— Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and the author of the New York Times bestseller The War on Cops.