Two years of corrosive rhetoric about racist cops, based on falsehoods—with disastrous effects.
By Heather Mac Donald
July 12, 2016 6:37 p.m. ET
For two years American police departments have endured relentless attacks from the Obama administration, its media allies and the Black Lives Matter movement alleging that U.S. law enforcement is a racist, deadly threat to African-Americans. A handful of disturbing videos depicting police shootings helped galvanize widespread hostility to law-enforcement officers, and cops began backing away from the proactive policing that stops crime but has been repeatedly denounced as racial oppression.
The result, especially in the first half of this year, has been an appalling increase in shootings and murders in many cities across America. Most of the victims, in this poisonous era spawned by Black Lives Matter, have been black. Now the consequences of this stream of falsehoods about police may be spinning out of control, with the assassination of five police officers in Dallas last week and the attacks on cops in other cities since then.
Make no mistake: Assertions about systemic, deadly police racism are false. That has been true throughout the period following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014; recall that the cop involved was ultimately exonerated by the Justice Department. But no number of studies debunking this fiction has penetrated the conventional story line.
A “deadly force” lab study at Washington State University by researcher Lois James found that participants were biased in favor of black suspects, over white or Hispanic ones, in simulated threat scenarios. The research, published in 2014 in the Journal of Experimental Criminology, confirmed what Ms. James had found previously in studying active police officers, military personnel and the general public.
In 2015 a Justice Department analysis of the Philadelphia Police Department found that white police officers were less likely than black or Hispanic officers to shoot unarmed black suspects. And this month “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force” by Harvard economics professor Roland G. Fryer Jr., analyzing more than 1,000 officer-involved shootings across the country, reports that there is zero evidence of racial bias in police shootings.
All of which brings us to President Obama’s extraordinary statement last week alleging systemic racism in American law enforcement. He was speaking in the aftermath of two highly publicized fatal police shootings. Viral video captured the shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., as officers attempted to disarm him, and the aftermath of the shooting of Philando Castile during a car stop outside St. Paul, Minn.
Those shootings look horribly unjustified based on the videos alone; but information may emerge to explain the officers’ belief that the victims were reaching for a gun.
A few hours after President Obama made his remarks, the Dallas gunman assassinated five police officers, in a rampage that police officials later reported was driven by hatred of white officers and white people generally.
Mr. Obama’s statement undoubtedly had no causal relationship to the Dallas slaughter. But it certainly added to the record of distortion and falsehood that has stoked widespread animus toward the police.
It bears repeating: Unjustified shootings by police officers are an aberration, not the norm, and there is no evidence that racism drives police actions.
Every year, officers confront tens of thousands of armed felons without using lethal force. According to the Washington Post, police officers fatally shot 987 people in the U.S. last year; the overwhelming majority were armed or threatening deadly force.
Blacks made up a lower percentage of those police-shooting victims—26%—than would be predicted by the higher black involvement in violent crime. Whites made up 50% of police shooting victims, but you would never know it from media coverage. Note also that police officers face an 18.5 times greater chance of being killed by a black male than an unarmed black male has of being killed by a police officer.
Indifferent to these facts, President Obama on Thursday, referring to the police killings in Baton Rouge and St. Paul, said: “[T]hese are not isolated incidents. They’re symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.” He made another sweeping allegation of law-enforcement racism, saying that there “are problems across our criminal justice system, there are biases—some conscious and unconscious—that have to be rooted out.” And he claimed that higher rates of arrests and stops among blacks reflect police discrimination; naturally, Mr. Obama remained silent about blacks’ far higher rates of crime.
Such corrosive rhetoric about the nation’s police officers and criminal-justice system is unsettling coming from the president of the United States, but it reflects how thoroughly the misinformation propagated by Black Lives Matter and the media has taken hold. Last month Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, dissenting in a case about police searches, wrote that blacks are “routinely targeted” by law enforcement, adding that “Until their voices matter, too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.”
Hillary Clinton has also taken up this warped cause. On CNN Friday, she decried “systemic” and “implicit bias” in police departments. She also called on “white people” to better understand blacks “who fear every time their children go somewhere.”
Mrs. Clinton ought to take a look at Chicago. Through July 9, 2,090 people have been shot this year, including a 3-year-old boy shot on Father’s Day who will be paralyzed for life, an 11-year-old boy wounded on the Fourth of July, and a 4-year-old boy wounded last week. How many of the 2,090 victims in Chicago were shot by cops? Nine.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump emphasized “law and order” in a video released Friday, saying: “We must stand in solidarity with law enforcement, which we must remember is the force between civilization and total chaos.”
Given the nightmarish events of the past several days, Mr. Trump could do worse than making this presidential campaign one about that line between civilization and anarchy.
Ms. Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of “The War on Cops,” just out from Encounter Books.