Our nation has once again been pitched headlong into the maelstrom of race, crime and law enforcement. In the wake of shootings by police of black men in Louisiana and in Falcon Heights, Minn., we’ve again heard shrill accusations that cops are racists out to get black men and have watched as Black Lives Matter protesters shut down freeways. We’ve grieved for cops gunned down in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
Again, we’ve heard public officials, including Gov. Mark Dayton, denounce police as bigots before the facts of an incident are known.
Folks, it’s “get real” time. What price are we paying for ignoring reality — including the demographics of crime; the deadly, split-second environment in which the police work, and the potential for reckless public policies to undermine our communities’ safety?
Minneapolis offers an instructive case study. Here, starting in November 2015, Black Lives Matter and other activists wreaked havoc for weeks protesting the death of Jamar Clark. Clark was a 24-year-old with at least 20 previous arrests. He assaulted a woman; blocked paramedics from treating her; refused to comply with officers’ order to take his hands from his pockets, and was shot as he tried to grab an officer’s gun.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman found the actions of the two officers involved to be justified after an exhaustive evidentiary review. But Black Lives Matter and the Minneapolis NAACP — like their counterparts in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and elsewhere — showed no interest in the facts. They continued their crusade against the officers, whose lives are now in shambles.
After the Clark affair, Minneapolis police officers understood how great a risk they face of having their reputations destroyed — or even being slapped with a criminal indictment — if things go bad in a single incident. So they began to back off the sort of proactive policing — like traffic and suspicious-person stops — that prevents higher-level crimes and gets guns off the street.
By mid-July, shootings in Minneapolis were up 46 percent compared with the same time last year, though in the last couple weeks of July the increase dipped to 24 percent — perhaps a temporary blip. On the North Side, law-abiding citizens say that violent crime, up 11 percent, is suffocating their neighborhoods, and they plead for more law enforcement.
This appears to be the so-called Ferguson effect, which is on full display in cities such as Baltimore and Chicago, where shootings have soared.
Is the Black Lives Matter narrative true? Are police racists who unfairly target minorities?
Activists say the arrest rate of African-Americans — much higher than their share of the population — is conclusive proof of police bias. But here’s the tragic and uncomfortable truth: Blacks are arrested more often, on average, because they commit a hugely disproportionate share of crime.
Nationally, blacks were charged with 62 percent of robberies and 57 percent of murders in the 75 largest U.S. counties in 2009, though they made up 15 percent of the population there, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Black males between the ages of 14 and 17 commit murder at 10 times the rate of other males of that age.
Homicide is the leading cause of death for black men under age 45. And nearly all black homicide victims are killed by other blacks.
Young black men are in danger, all right. But not from police.
The Minneapolis Police Department gets about 500,000 calls for service a year. Yet it’s hard to find an officer who has discharged his or her weapon in the course of duty, according to Lt. Bob Kroll of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis.
That’s true in New York City as well. In 2013, police there responded to 80,000 weapons-related calls. Yet they discharged their own weapons only 40 times.
Is it racist white cops who shoot? The city’s black officers are 3.3 times more likely than other officers to fire their weapons at crime scenes where gunfire is involved, according to a recent study.
“A police officer’s chance of getting killed by a black assailant is 18.5 times higher than the chance of an unarmed black getting killed by a cop,” according to the recently released “The War on Cops,” by Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute.
Since May 2013, Minneapolis police have responded to approximately 1.5 million calls for service. In those three years, they have shot and killed three men — a mentally disturbed Hispanic man who was knifing another man; a black man who was firing at two officers, and Jamar Clark.
Black Lives Matter and the Minneapolis NAACP expressed outrage at the Clark shooting. Activists staged a tumultuous weekslong protest at Fourth Precinct headquarters in north Minneapolis. They also shut down a major freeway, as protesters did after the Philando Castile shooting in Falcon Heights.
But when it comes to the deadly black-on-black shootouts that are the new norm in Minneapolis, these activists are relatively silent. In May, one such gun battle left one dead and six wounded. Two days after the Castile shooting, two toddlers were shot — one killed — in north Minneapolis. There were no freeway shutdowns to protest the brutal marring of those innocent lives.
Police are right to believe there’s an agenda at work here, and it’s not primarily concern for black lives.
Unfortunately, Mayor Betsy Hodges and the Minneapolis City Council have embraced Black Lives Matter’s “the cops are racist” story line. Council Member Cam Gordon, for example, deplores “the structural racism baked into our system” and “the new Jim Crow that’s plaguing our city.”
Recent council actions have put police on the defensive, eliminated important crime-fighting tools and emboldened criminals.
Under the influence of the Black Lives Matter narrative, officials are adopting policies — in the name of “racial equity” — that are making violence worse and that seem to be escalating the risk to black lives. As of July 26 in north Minneapolis, 132 people had been victims of shootings this year, compared with 89 at this time last year — an increase of 48 percent. And as of that date, 79 percent of Minneapolis gunshot victims had been black.
The council’s recent decriminalization of “lurking with intent to commit a crime” is one of the policies in question.
Police say the lurking ordinance allowed them to stop and question people acting suspiciously. It helped prevent bigger crimes, like burglary, and to get guns off the street. One veteran officer (who wished to remain anonymous) estimates that the 400 or so lurking charges filed from 2009 to 2014 probably led to 2,000 arrests for bigger crimes.
“It used to be, if a homeowner called at 4 a.m. about a guy in his back yard or a furtive person peering in car windows, I could stop and ID him,” he says. “Often, I’d find a warrant for his arrest, or he might run and throw drugs or a gun. That probably meant one less robbery or assault, one less gun on the street.”
But now the City Council has tied his hands, he says.
The council says lurking is no longer a crime, so police aren’t going to risk contact with a suspicious person, explains retired Minneapolis police Sgt. Tim Hoeppner. In addition, “if the guy claims the officer used excessive force, the city will pay him money to go away,” he says.
“That implication of wrongdoing will stay on the officer’s record forever. Worse yet, if the guy appears to be pulling a weapon and the officer is forced to shoot, he could end up in prison.”
You could say the City Council is making cops’ job easier, concludes Hoeppner. But it’s the people of Minneapolis who will pay the price, he says.
As police authority ebbs, the climate of menace and intimidation is growing — especially downtown.
Today, gangbangers and criminals are more emboldened than he’s ever seen them, says Hoeppner. “They know the cops are afraid to stop and confront them about their guns. They taunt and catcall and spit at the cops’ feet, and then pull out their cellphones to video any reaction. They know there will be no consequences.”
“If the City Council members would ever take a walk down Hennepin Avenue at midnight,” Hoeppner adds, “they would understand how badly their policies are hurting the city.” Especially at bar closing, large, moblike groups block sidewalks, steal cellphones, and harass or sucker-punch people.
Police say a new “diversionary program” for some charged with obstructing legal process will also make their job more difficult. This misdemeanor charge can be used at chaotic crime scenes, where people surround police and scream in their faces as they try to question witnesses or arrest a suspect, or when a suspect’s friends crowd around a squad car to make it harder for officers to put him in the back seat.
Such conduct can make a volatile crime scene even more dangerous. But now, for some first-time offenders, it doesn’t mean a fine or jail time — “just a cup of coffee with the deputy chief, who explains why it’s not OK to interfere with police,” says Kroll.
It’s just more proof that authorities no longer have their backs, police say.
If we really cared about black lives, where would we put our energies? First, we would focus on reducing black-on-black homicide. Second, we would increase the proactive policing that prevents bigger crimes and gets guns off the street — especially on the North Side. That would require an about-face by the City Council.
Finally, we would launch a campaign to convince people to comply with police orders first and sort out their complaints later.
If we choose not to do these things, we can simply stand by and watch as more violent madness engulfs our cities.
Katherine Kersten is a senior policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.