Commentary Magazine


Topic: Baltimore

The Real Victims of the War on Police

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.

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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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Baltimore’s Indictments and How Not to Fix America’s Cities

Baltimore got the celebration this afternoon that many in Ferguson, Missouri longed for last summer and fall. The decision of Baltimore’s State’s Attorney to indict all the police officers connected with the death of Freddie Gray while in their custody turned demonstrations about the case into street parties today. The announcement that the cops had been charged with the most serious charges possible and faced decades in prison was exactly what the city needed to restore the peace that was disrupted by violent riots earlier in the week. But even as the nation sighs in relief at the prospect of calm in Baltimore, the upcoming trial and the ongoing debate about the significance of the case may raise more questions than can be answered by the indictment of six officers. If, as may happen, the officers are not convicted, the prospect of violence will be great. Nor is it likely that much light will be shed in the debate about the future of troubled urban areas like Baltimore or law enforcement in the rush to jail the cops in the case that has given new life to a largely misleading narrative of racism.

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Baltimore got the celebration this afternoon that many in Ferguson, Missouri longed for last summer and fall. The decision of Baltimore’s State’s Attorney to indict all the police officers connected with the death of Freddie Gray while in their custody turned demonstrations about the case into street parties today. The announcement that the cops had been charged with the most serious charges possible and faced decades in prison was exactly what the city needed to restore the peace that was disrupted by violent riots earlier in the week. But even as the nation sighs in relief at the prospect of calm in Baltimore, the upcoming trial and the ongoing debate about the significance of the case may raise more questions than can be answered by the indictment of six officers. If, as may happen, the officers are not convicted, the prospect of violence will be great. Nor is it likely that much light will be shed in the debate about the future of troubled urban areas like Baltimore or law enforcement in the rush to jail the cops in the case that has given new life to a largely misleading narrative of racism.

Unlike in Ferguson, protesters need no longer demand that police accused of a role in the death of a young black man be arrested and indicted. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby immediately became a media heroine when she gave demonstrators and pundits calling for quick justice what they wanted during the course of a lengthy address that blasted the accused for their conduct.

Mosby handled her press conference ably. But the haste with which the state’s attorney charged the officers and her choice to avoid using going through the grand jury process, leaves open the possibility that her decision had more to do with politics and the need to keep the peace than justice. The multiplicity of charges as well as the second-degree murder count also makes it likely that she is hoping to offer a plea to some of the officers in order to convict others. The guilty should be punished severely. Yet it remains to be seen whether she has overcharged the police. But just as the accused are entitled to a presumption of innocence, so, too, must the country hope that the evidence exists to support the accusations of murder. If not, then Mosby is earning temporary applause that will eventually blow up in her face as well as that of the rest of the city.

Looking beyond the fate of these individual officers, the danger here is that the case of Freddie Gray will, regardless of the evidence, become a rallying cry against police around the country as well as feeding often false charges of racism.

This week’s riot has set off an ocean of commentary about the fate of the inner cities and renewed the debate about the extent to which government can solve the problems of cities like Baltimore. Some of these exchanges have been thoughtful. But many have been absurd. The idea that calling rioters “thugs” is evidence of racism shows how far the discussion of race has been debased by a debilitating political correctness. Al Sharpton’s call for the nationalization of police, Michael Moore’s demand that they be disarmed can be dismissed as fodder for the MSNBC crowd and not much more. N.D.B. Connolly’s New York Times op-ed in which he raised the specter of slavery to depict Baltimore — a city with a black mayor and state’s attorney and an integrated police force — to be a bastion of racism highlighted the way the left hopes to parlay this tragedy and any others it can rope into the conversation into political capital.

It goes without saying that the plight of those trapped in inner cities with failing schools and dysfunctional economies are right to want change. But no matter how Freddie Gray was killed, nothing in this case changes the fact that cities like Baltimore have been governed by the political left and often by minority politicians for decades. Racism is part of the reality of American history. But the collapse of these cities is the fruit of a failed liberal government project. Liberals and Democrats point to the Baltimore riots as the justification for a renewal of the same big spending policies that have already repeatedly failed. Nor will an attempt to shoehorn isolated incidents of police misbehavior into a general narrative of racism that makes it hard for law enforcement to work bring peace to neighborhoods. That’s especially true of those that badly need police to defend the safety and property of citizens beset more by crime than a notional oppression that has little connection to their lives.

The danger here is not just that justice is always sacrificed when mobs exercise influence over politicians who fear to anger them (such as Baltimore’s mayor who called earlier this week for giving thugs “space to destroy). It’s that a productive dialogue about how to expand economic opportunity and improve education — the only factors that can heal broken cities — is being drowned in a sea of misleading rhetoric about race and police violence.

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What Jon Stewart and George Stephanopoulos Got Wrong

Last night on The Daily Show, in talking about the Baltimore riots, this exchange took place between host Jon Stewart and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos:

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Last night on The Daily Show, in talking about the Baltimore riots, this exchange took place between host Jon Stewart and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos:

Stewart: Right now it seems the easy thing to do is to say, “There are criminals on the streets and they’re creating violence.” That’s the easiest thing in the world to do and not to address in any way…

Stephanopoulos: It’s true but it’s not enough….

Stewart: It’s not enough at all. And it’s a small percentage of it. And you just wonder sometimes if we’re spending a trillion dollars to rebuild Afghanistan’s schools, like, we can’t build a little taste down Baltimore way. Like is that what’s really going on.

Stephanopoulos: This is what drives me crazy …. you just got applause when you said that line. Any single politician in the country gets applause when they say that line. Yet it doesn’t happen.

Stewart: Because I think ultimately what they count on is that those applause lines will be obscured by the reality of the real power structure within Washington….

Where to begin? Let’s start with Stewart’s claim that we have spent “a trillion dollars” to rebuild Afghanistan’s schools. Not quite. In fact, not even close. Between 2002 and 2012, USAID invested $885 million in education projects in Afghanistan.

As for their broader point, which is that we have spent a huge sum of money on Afghanistan’s schools but we’re not spending enough for cities like Baltimore: Those claims are also false. Let’s focus just on education in Baltimore, so we can do an apples-to-apples comparison.

As this article points out, according to data from the Census Bureau, the Baltimore school system ranked second among the nation’s 100 largest school districts in how much it spent per pupil in fiscal year 2011. Baltimore’s $15,483 per-pupil expenditure was second to New York City’s $19,770.

As for where the United States ranks:

The United States spent more than $11,000 per elementary student in 2010 and more than $12,000 per high school student. When researchers factored in the cost for programs after high school education such as college or vocational training, the United States spent $15,171 on each young person in the system — more than any other nation covered in the [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] report.

That sum inched past some developed countries and far surpassed others. Switzerland’s total spending per student was $14,922 while Mexico averaged $2,993 in 2010. The average OECD nation spent $9,313 per young person.

As a share of its economy, the United States spent more than the average country in the survey. In 2010, the United States spent 7.3 percent of its gross domestic product on education, compared with the 6.3 percent average of other OECD countries.

The argument Stewart and Stephanopoulos were throwing out–we’re dramatically under-investing in America’s cities–is liberal claptrap. To stay with the issue of education, the problem with American education in general, and large urban school districts in particular, isn’t lack of funding. It’s lack of accountability and transparency, lack of competition and choice, lack of results and high standards. We obsess on inputs and ignore outputs. What often happens, in fact, is the worst school districts often get the most money based on the flawed premise that the reason the schools are failing is lack of funding.

We’re spending an enormous amount of money on a system that isn’t producing, and it’s liberal interest groups (e.g., education unions) and the Democratic Party that are ferocious opponents of the kind of reforms that would improve American education. What exactly are the compelling public policy and moral arguments for opposing school choice for kids in the worst schools in America? There are none. The opposition is based on wanting to maintain and increase political power. If it’s the kids who suffer, so be it. Progressivism has an agenda to achieve, after all. Sometimes you need to break eggs to make an omelet.

A confession: I think Jon Stewart is a fine comedian and George Stephanopoulos a fine journalist. I’ve had good things to say about both in the past. Yet they are both deeply liberal, and now and then their liberalism pours forth in uninformed ways. Their Daily Show interview is an example of ideology dressed up as moral concern, which can sometimes lead to moral preening.

A final point: For all their self-proclaimed compassion, liberals and liberalism are, in important respects, doing significant damage to the young people in America, and most especially to the most vulnerable in our midst. Messrs. Stewart and Stephanopoulos don’t seem to realize this, but they should. Because human lives should take priority over political ideology.

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Crime Going Extinct?

In one of the more hopeful and underreported stories in recent months, we learned that for the first half of 2009 — a period of considerable economic distress in our country — crime fell by 4.4 percent nationwide, with the murder rate dropping by a staggering 10 percent, according to statistics recently released by the FBI (see links here and here). The decline in murders from one year to another is one of the more significant decreases we have ever experienced. (All four of the offenses that make up violent crime — murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault — decreased nationwide. In addition to the murder rate declining by 10 percent, robbery also fell by 6.5 percent, forcible rape decreased by 3.3 percent, and aggravated assault declined by 3.2 percent.)

In disaggregating this data, we see that violent crime and aggravated assault decreased in major cities of over 1 million residents, dropping by 7 percent and 6.2 percent, respectively. Crime in America’s largest city, New York, has fallen by 11 percent from last year and by 35 percent since 2001. New York, with 461 murders through December 27, is on track for the lowest number of homicides since comprehensive record-keeping began in 1963.

In Los Angeles the murder rate for the first half of 2009 was down by almost 30 percent. In Washington, D.C., the murder rate fell by 26 percent from a comparable period last year, to its lowest in the last two decades. The first half of 2009 also witnessed a 14 percent decrease in homicides in Atlanta and a 10 percent drop in Boston. (It should be pointed out that some cities, like Baltimore and Detroit, saw their murder rate climb.)

The Washington Post summarized things well in its January 2 editorial:

The national decrease in murder began about two decades ago. In 1991, the national homicide rate hit 9.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, prompting forecasts of permanently rising street violence — then fell to 5.7 in 1999. Many wondered whether this “Great Crime Decline” could be sustained for another 10 years. The answer would appear to be yes: By 2008, the murder rate had drifted down to 5.4 per 100,000, the lowest level since 1965. And given the preliminary figures, the rate for 2009 should be lower still. Indeed, if present trends continue, America will experience a degree of public safety not known since the 1950s.

The reasons for the drop we have witnessed in violent crime since the 1990s are multiple, probably including higher incarceration rates and tougher sentencing; advances in policing (including targeting repeat offenders and high-crime areas, utilizing technology such as crime mapping and gunfire-detection systems, which allows police to rapidly respond to incidents, and identifying criminal patterns more effectively); the passing of the crack-cocaine epidemic; the aging of the population; an enormous investment in private security measures; a proliferation of surveillance cameras; more effective intervention and prevention; and more.

It is impossible to ascribe with precision the exact reasons that have led to the progress we have witnessed; they vary depending on cities and circumstances. But the moral of the story is clear enough: problems that at one time seemed intractable can yield, and yield quickly, to the right policies and to a determined citizenry. Fatalism and despair are not options. And the capacity of American ingenuity to address the challenges we face is remarkable. As Irving Kristol put it more than three decades ago, “One of the least appreciated virtues of this society is its natural recuperative powers — its capacity to change, as we say, but also its capacity to preserve itself, to adapt and survive. The strength of these powers always astonishes us, as we anticipate (even proclaim) an imminent apocalypse that somehow never comes.”

It is not terribly fashionable to focus on the progress we experience, whether it has to do with a drop in violent crime rates here at home or a more pacified situation in Iraq. We are prone to focus our attention on the problems we face and the things that are going wrong. But sometimes, to paraphrase James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson, cheerfulness does break in.

In one of the more hopeful and underreported stories in recent months, we learned that for the first half of 2009 — a period of considerable economic distress in our country — crime fell by 4.4 percent nationwide, with the murder rate dropping by a staggering 10 percent, according to statistics recently released by the FBI (see links here and here). The decline in murders from one year to another is one of the more significant decreases we have ever experienced. (All four of the offenses that make up violent crime — murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault — decreased nationwide. In addition to the murder rate declining by 10 percent, robbery also fell by 6.5 percent, forcible rape decreased by 3.3 percent, and aggravated assault declined by 3.2 percent.)

In disaggregating this data, we see that violent crime and aggravated assault decreased in major cities of over 1 million residents, dropping by 7 percent and 6.2 percent, respectively. Crime in America’s largest city, New York, has fallen by 11 percent from last year and by 35 percent since 2001. New York, with 461 murders through December 27, is on track for the lowest number of homicides since comprehensive record-keeping began in 1963.

In Los Angeles the murder rate for the first half of 2009 was down by almost 30 percent. In Washington, D.C., the murder rate fell by 26 percent from a comparable period last year, to its lowest in the last two decades. The first half of 2009 also witnessed a 14 percent decrease in homicides in Atlanta and a 10 percent drop in Boston. (It should be pointed out that some cities, like Baltimore and Detroit, saw their murder rate climb.)

The Washington Post summarized things well in its January 2 editorial:

The national decrease in murder began about two decades ago. In 1991, the national homicide rate hit 9.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, prompting forecasts of permanently rising street violence — then fell to 5.7 in 1999. Many wondered whether this “Great Crime Decline” could be sustained for another 10 years. The answer would appear to be yes: By 2008, the murder rate had drifted down to 5.4 per 100,000, the lowest level since 1965. And given the preliminary figures, the rate for 2009 should be lower still. Indeed, if present trends continue, America will experience a degree of public safety not known since the 1950s.

The reasons for the drop we have witnessed in violent crime since the 1990s are multiple, probably including higher incarceration rates and tougher sentencing; advances in policing (including targeting repeat offenders and high-crime areas, utilizing technology such as crime mapping and gunfire-detection systems, which allows police to rapidly respond to incidents, and identifying criminal patterns more effectively); the passing of the crack-cocaine epidemic; the aging of the population; an enormous investment in private security measures; a proliferation of surveillance cameras; more effective intervention and prevention; and more.

It is impossible to ascribe with precision the exact reasons that have led to the progress we have witnessed; they vary depending on cities and circumstances. But the moral of the story is clear enough: problems that at one time seemed intractable can yield, and yield quickly, to the right policies and to a determined citizenry. Fatalism and despair are not options. And the capacity of American ingenuity to address the challenges we face is remarkable. As Irving Kristol put it more than three decades ago, “One of the least appreciated virtues of this society is its natural recuperative powers — its capacity to change, as we say, but also its capacity to preserve itself, to adapt and survive. The strength of these powers always astonishes us, as we anticipate (even proclaim) an imminent apocalypse that somehow never comes.”

It is not terribly fashionable to focus on the progress we experience, whether it has to do with a drop in violent crime rates here at home or a more pacified situation in Iraq. We are prone to focus our attention on the problems we face and the things that are going wrong. But sometimes, to paraphrase James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson, cheerfulness does break in.

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