Heather Mac Donald on Policing

Last week the Alexander Hamilton Institute welcomed Heather Mac Donald, a scholar from the Manhattan Institute, to give a lecture entitled “Are Cops Racist?”

Mac Donald is a highly accomplished journalist whose articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other high-profile publications. Her academic credentials are likewise impressive: she received a B.A. in English from Yale, an M.A. in English from Cambridge, and a J.D. from Stanford University Law School.

The lecture focused on what Mac Donald called the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Mac Donald challenged the pervasive narrative that police racism leads to an epidemic of officers shooting black men. She argued that the racial disparity in the victims of police shootings is explained by crime levels and by policing techniques that have nothing to do with racism. Her lecture was both a defense of those techniques, which have led to significant decreases in violent crime in urban areas, and a refutation of the idea that shootings like that of Michael Brown indicate a crisis of police racism.

Mac Donald has studied policing for many years, and draws her information from a number of sources, including ride-alongs with police, interviews with residents in high-crime areas, and, most importantly, statistics.

The lecture exposed major problems with the Black Lives Matter movement. Academics, politicians, and journalists have irresponsibly used the Michael Brown incident to slander police departments across the country. The movement’s great lie, that Michael Brown was shot while his hands were up by a racist police officer, has found favor among college students and members of Congress alike. Let’s not forget that dozens of Hamilton students marched across campus championing this lie. The “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” chants have persisted despite the fact that Eric Holder’s Justice Department, the most activist Justice Department in recent history, found no evidence of racial prejudice in the shooting, and plenty of evidence that Michael Brown was shot while assaulting Officer Wilson.

The spectacularly irresponsible rush to judgment has perhaps done irreparable damage to the reputation of police officers in America. It’s completely unwarranted, considering the progress in policing over the past twenty or so years. New York City in particular saw an enormous decrease in crime in the 1990s, due in large part to a new policing strategy.

The New York City strategy relies on a system called CompStat, which allows police to allocate their resources more efficiently. They compile massive amounts of data on arrests and reports of criminal activity and hold weekly meetings to make officers accountable for crime levels in their precincts. As Mac Donald explained, local precinct commanders need to be familiar with every crime that occurred in their precinct in the last week, and their superiors grill the commanders about how they intend to prevent further crime. The system makes officers directly responsible for the safety of people in their precincts, whether those residents are black or white.

Another important part of the New York City strategy was so-called “broken-windows” policing, in which police crack down on low-level crime in order to discourage more violent crime. New York City police found that when they paid more attention to things like loitering and public disturbances, higher-level crime also decreased.

Despite its impressive results and its largely positive effects on crime-ridden communities, broken windows policing has fallen out of favor with the left. The fact that more police resources are allocated to areas with high crime, which tend to have larger black populations, means that there is a disparity between the number of black arrests and white arrests. 

If the alternative to these crime fighting strategies were to distribute police resources more equally among majority-black and majority-white areas, the result would be disastrous for the majority-black communities where crime is a much greater threat. The Upper West Side liberals who like to protest policing are so far removed from the threat of crime that they see no problem with taking away police protection for minority communities.

The conclusions of Mac Donald’s lecture are that policing strategies have been increasingly adept at protecting largely black neighborhoods, and that the disparities that some would attribute to racism are actually explained by those strategies. That does not mean the strategies are themselves racist. So long as majority-black neighborhoods face higher crime levels than majority-white neighborhoods, there will be a disparity in the number of black and white arrests. It is a terrible inequality, but it is not the product of racial prejudice. Those who wish to solve it would do better to look elsewhere.

Yes, there are racist cops. But to indict the entire system of policing would not only be an error in reasoning, it would be a great disservice to the minority populations who benefit the most from a strong police force.