Protecting Our Cops

Review: ‘The War on Cops’ by Heather Mac Donald

Officers and protesters face off in Ferguson, Missouri / AP
June 26, 2016

Police officers across the United States are shunning interaction with their communities, and violence is increasing in those places. These are Heather Mac Donald’s two main contentions in her passionate, widely sourced book, The War on Cops.

Mac Donald begins in Ferguson, appropriately. Assessing the August 2014 violence that broke out there following the police shooting of a black man, Michael Brown, Mac Donald explains how officers nationwide came under siege. There were two key agitators behind this development: the media and politicians. The media painted the Ferguson rioting as a form of political protest rather than violent thuggery, legitimating criminality in the process. Then, led by President Obama, the political elite sought to shame police officers and deride them for taking risks to stop criminals from burning down an American city. Mac Donald’s fury at Obama is a persistent theme of the book: on the first page of the first chapter, Mr. Obama is described as having "betrayed’’ and "perverted’’ his responsibilities as president. And while the author rightly condemns the self-righteous foolishness of the president’s frequent intrusions into criminal justice debates, the fury of her critique occasionally sidetracks her superb analysis.

Still, Mac Donald’s statistics tell the tale. At 2015’s end, after police officers had spent a year in retreat in face of the "Ferguson Effect," skyrocketing murder rates had returned to major American cities.

Mac Donald says the anti-police movement is united by its claim that police departments are inherently racist. But she also points out the fact that two police agencies that have received some of the greatest criticism—the corrections agency for Rikers Island in New York, and the Detroit Police Department—are predominantly staffed by black officers. The lesson: actual problems afflicting police agencies deal professionalism, not race. But The War on Cops is not concerned solely or even primarily with the plight of law enforcement. Rather, Mac Donald fears for minority Americans who are the war’s most numerous casualties. Hearing from the vast majority of minority Americans who are law-abiding citizens trying to lead good lives, we see how community meetings in high-crime, high-minority population neighborhoods have a familiar theme. "The targets of [complaints about criminals] may have been black and Hispanic, but the people making the complaints, themselves black and Hispanic, didn’t care. They just want orderly streets.’’

The question of order in minority communities is critical: "Blacks were charged with 62% of all robberies, 57% of all murders, and 45% of all assaults in the 75 largest U.S. counties in 2009, while constituting roughly 15% of the population in those counties. From 2005 to 2014, 40% of cop-killers were black. Given the racially lopsided nature of gun violence, a 26% rate of black victimization by the police is not evidence of bias.’’ Mac Donald has a convincing explanation for these statistics: the collapse of the family. In a chapter on gang violence in Chicago, for example, we see that in Cook County, "79% of all black children were born out of wedlock in 2003, compared with 15% of white children.’’ Mac Donald notes, "Until that gap closes, the crime gap won’t close, either.’’

But this isn’t just a book of telling numbers. Whether highlighting the LAPD’s minefield of paperwork requirements that deter interaction with the public, or extinguishing the lie that drug sentencing is systemically racist, or in explaining why felony convictions are not the result of hard luck but rather the product of repeated and deliberate choices, Mac Donald educates us on the nuts and bolts of the contemporary justice system. We’re also offered good ideas for making things better. For a start, we must forget the idea that crime is solved by economic activity and wealth. In fact, "lowered crime is a precondition to economic revival. Not it’s consequence.’’ We must also have better training for police officers in certain departments, of support for community supervision and not prison for some offenders, and for a change in breach-of-probation practices. In all this, Mac Donald seeks stronger communities and lower recidivism.

The War on Cops brings stark intellectual honesty to a debate suffering from its absence. Employing statistics and stories to make her case, Mac Donald deconstructs the flimsy, faux-intellectual deception of the anti-police left. She convinces us that by using big words, and selective, non-contextualized statistics, the anti-police movement is propagating criminality and endangering American communities. Yet for all the data and detail, The War on Cops offers a simple lesson: this is not a war sustained by minorities, but rather by an alliance of liberal elitists and criminals. And those who suffer its wounds are police officers second, and innocents first.

Published under: Book reviews