Not that I am late to the conversation, but I considered it best to let the angry rhetoric die down before penning this entry. We have witnessed some ugly scenes in Ferguson and New York City that I believe we can all agree were not handled particularly well. The fingers point at city officials and protesters with the flash point being the police in between. Whether it was Bill DeBlasio’s unwarranted comments about his biracial son or some of the military tactics used by police in Ferguson, these were actions that only fanned the flames when they should have been extinguished. By the same token, actions by protesters in New York such as blocking tunnels and bridges or the rioting and looting that occurred in Ferguson were ugly despicable acts culminating in the ambush assassination of two NYC police officers. The actions and comments by people like Al Sharpton also made the situation considerably worse.
Some of the more sane voices were calling for a realistic dialog about race relations in general and those relations as they pertain to the police and African-Americans. Unfortunately, that realistic, direct dialog may lead to places where the African-American community may not want to tread. The fact is that despite these high profile cases of late, overall statistics do not necessarily bear out their conclusions of police “picking on” or “indiscriminately killing” blacks. Statistics can be skewed to prove anything one wants, or they can be specifically parsed to come to a conclusion one wants to prove. So, when you hear about statistics like a black suspect is three times more likely to be the victim of police brutality, one has to look at those figures with some skepticism.
On the one hand, you have the civil rights community complaining about the lack of black police officers and, in fact, about 75% of all police officers are white. Meanwhile, one needs to look at the crime rates in the black community. Statistics compiled by the Justice Department indicate that blacks are seven times more likely to commit a violent crime than all other demographic groups, and 8 times more likely to commit robbery. When they commit a crime, they are three times more likely than all other groups to use a gun. The simple laws of probability indicate that if you have a primarily white police force patrolling a primarily black community, the chances of a violent confrontation between a white officer and a black suspect are immediately higher. The reasons for the increased violent crime rates in the black community are little consolation to the police officer who is more likely than not to engage in a potentially violent situation that may require the use of deadly force.
These examples are often used as proof-positive that the police are racist. Again, let’s look at some statistics. There are about 770,000 incidents of violent interracial crime. In those cases, 85% of the violence is perpetrated by blacks on whites. Further, statistics from victim surveys indicate that blacks commit violent crimes where 45% of victims are white, 43% are black and 10% are Hispanic. Part of this is the culture of certain black communities where drugs and gangs are prevalent. According to the FBI, only 10% of all gang members in the United States are white. Part of this is attributable to the glamorization of the thug life ironically perpetuated by white-owned movie production studios.
That is not to say that there are legitimate cases of police brutality and excessive force. The source of this problem is threefold. First, the courts generally defer to police actions after years of the pendulum swinging too far towards criminal rights. The concept of qualified or absolute immunity for police officers restricts potential victims of police abuse from pursuing legal recourse in the courts. Knowing that one may be liable for monetary damages for excessive force may be a huge deterrent towards future acts. I am not a great fan of lawsuits, but the fact there are legitimate cases is enough justification for lawmakers to revisit the concept of immunity for police officers in some cases.
The second source is the apparent disconnect between the police and the communities they are sworn to serve and protect. Again, this is not an attribute of all police forces and appears to be a bigger problem in the large metropolitan areas. Some of this is because of the rapidly changing demographics of these areas. That is not to say that police should undergo some ethnic sensitivity training seminars. But, community policing has proven to be a useful tool in forging a relationship between the police and the community. It may actually help for the officer to get out of their car and talk to minority business owners, residents, and kids on the playground. The greater the connection between the police and the community, the less chance there will be instances of police misconduct.
The final problem is the federalization and militarization of local law enforcement. Not every instance of a crime rises to the level of a national problem. The example of Trayvon Martin in Florida is illustrative here. Another example is the Henry Louis Gates incident in Boston and the resulting Obama “beer summit.” There is no reason for towns to have armored SWAT teams in armored vehicles responding for what amounts to nothing. There are several towns around me who have such hardware and have not had a single murder in ten years.
When one looks at a map of alleged incidents of police misconduct, a glaring fact stands out- it is more prevalent in heavily populated areas. The reason is simple- a sea of faces of individuals soon fades into a collection of groups. The result is detachment between the police and the community. Given the fact that violent crime is more prevalent in urban areas, the chances of alleged police misconduct are increased. These are simple demographic and probability facts. Perhaps with better community policing and less crime being committed by minority populations (thus decreasing the chances of possible stereotyping by the police), a truce can be achieved. It is up to people like Al Sharpton, Eric Holder and others to address the high crime rates among minorities rather than pointing fingers at police in knee jerk fashion.