Commentary Magazine

The Real Victims of the War on Police

Protesters march on 5th Avenue during the Millions March NYC on December 13, 2014 in New York. Thousands of people marched in Washington and New York on Saturday to demand justice for black men who have died at the hands of white police, the latest in weeks of demonstrations across the United States. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

From last summer’s disturbances in Ferguson, Missouri to the more recent riots in Baltimore, the country has been engaged in a debate about police violence that has hinged on accusations of systematic racism. Regardless of the findings about the shooting in Ferguson or the racial identity of the Baltimore officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, a narrative about police racism has become entrenched in our popular culture that has remained impervious to reason or the facts. One of the consequences of this war on police that has been encouraged by statements coming from the very top of our government, including the president and the attorney general, have been incidents of violence against police. When officers go down that generates some attention, yet less discussed is the way the lives of people in poverty-stricken minority neighborhoods are affected by this attempt to blame the nation’s ills on white racism. But as the Wall Street Journal reports today, it is precisely they who are suffering as arrests have gone down in Baltimore in the last month while violent crime has increased dramatically.

In the weeks after Gray’s death as scrutiny and criticism of the Baltimore police has intensified, arrests have gone down by a rate of 40 percent when compared to the same period of time in 2013 and 2014. What makes this figure so startling is that it includes the hundreds that were arrested during the riots that rocked portions of the city. At the same time, violence in the Western district of the city where the riots occurred has gone up in a way far outpacing the increase in the rest of the city.

What’s happened here is obvious. Nothing can or should excuse alleged police misbehavior and if the six officers — three white and three African-Americans — are convicted of responsibility for Gray’s death while in their custody, they will deserve to be harshly punished. But the willingness of so many people, both on the streets and on the airwaves, to take it as a given that the cops are alien invaders who must be resisted has made it difficult if not impossible for them to do their jobs.

It is understandable that the opprobrium directed at the police would affect their morale. But it goes further than that. As the Journal notes, it is now routine for police answering calls to be surrounded by hostile crowds with cameras. In some cases, this impedes their ability to carry out effective police work. In others it simply intimidates the cops who are often coming to the conclusion that it is far safer to simply do nothing than to intervene in situations and risk being accused of criminal or racist behavior regardless of their motivations.

Such a choice runs contrary to their duty to safeguard the public but given the stakes involved, it’s hard to blame officers for not risking their careers and freedom. But the real victims of a city with a police force that is reluctant to act are members of the public, not the cops. Those who will suffer the most are the residents of these same high crime minority neighborhoods. It is they who are most at risk at losing their property and injury and/or loss of life. Those areas of cities where public safety disappears are the same places where employment disappears.

The irony here is that the riots in Baltimore have prompted a lot of discussion about how best to deal with endemic poverty in minority neighborhoods with much finger-pointing at institutions like the police. That the example that prompted this outcry is a city that has been governed by liberals for more than half a century whose political establishment is dominated by blacks and has an integrated police force (as the list of those accused in Gray’s death testifies) makes it hard to take some of this discussion seriously. But no amount of racial sensitivity or liberal big government policies can undo the damage done by unchecked violent crime. In such an atmosphere no one can get ahead or indeed maintain any kind of standard of living.

The real consequence of the war on police that has been waged in the media and on the streets of America’s cities is a set of circumstances that may well doom another generation of minority kids to poverty and heightened chance of being a victim of violent crime. Those who have done the most to intimidate the police and to transform an unfortunate incident into a national effort to interfere with law enforcement activity may think they have won because they have changed the national conversation about race and the police. But they should weigh this illusory victory against the terrible damage their efforts have done to the people they claim to want to help.

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