Minnesota State Patrol troopers in riot gear stand guard near the Minneapolis Police Department's 3rd Precinct as fires blaze in the Lake Street business section on May 29, 2020 – four days after White police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, a handcuffed and unarmed Black man, by kneeling on his neck.
Crime – Race – Politics
Updated: Date
Published: August 7, 2020

Will Democrats snatch defeat from the jaws of victory over police tactics?

Writing from Washington, D.C.

I can think of a few things as wondrous as a thunderous Donald Trump thumping in November – but not many. Fast development of a COVID-19 vaccine. A quick global economic rebound to prevent mass starvation. And a rapid end to racism in the U.S. and around the world.

Of these, Trump’s defeat is by far the most likely. But I worry that Democrats could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory – as only the Democrats can. How? By overplaying their hand on the issue of policing – the issue Trump is trying to ride as his desperate, last gasp attempt to win reelection. The Democrats are potentially vulnerable because of three missteps they have made.

1. Arguing to defund the police. The truth is that most activists, Democrats – and presumptive nominee Joe Biden – aren’t talking about getting rid of all public safety officials. But some misbegotten radicals are. Most are mulling the kind of reform Eugene, Oregon has achieved: dispatch medics and mental health counselors when they are better suited than police to handle 911 emergency calls that involve homelessness, substance misuse, or a suicide threat. Other activists want to rebuild some police departments from scratch, though with a similar outcome: a smaller budget for crime and reallocation of a portion of police department budgets to experts who can perform social services and health tasks better than the police. Unfortunately, all this verbiage to explain the term “defunding” is a problem. Once you have to explain the bumper sticker, you’ve lost.

The term, not the objective, is a serious problem – and a huge gift to Trump. It enables him and the Republicans to argue that the Democrats favor anarchy and that the country needs a law-and-order president. The Trump ad for 911 calls that says, “Our estimated wait time currently is five days” is an over-the-top, shameful lie, but it exploits the opening that radicals provide. The defunding mantra enables Trump to tell Fox News commentator Sean Hannity: “And we can't abolish our police. They want to abolish our police.”

Whether this will play well beyond Trump’s base depends on several factors. One is how peaceful the protests are. In Portland, Oregon federal and local law enforcement working cooperatively had simmered down the unrest before Trump sent in his militia, which fanned the flames in Portland and other cities. On July 30, 2020, the feds agreed to leave Portland, and as soon as the Trump militia agreed to stand down, peaceful protests resumed. So Trump said he went in to restore peace and instead created more unruly unrest. Only when he left did peace return. Yet in an Orwellian turn, he will claim victory and will have the visuals of defaced federal buildings and tear gas canisters for his campaign ads. The peaceful protesters’ messages will have gotten lost amid the firebombs.

Another factor is whether voters will recognize that crime rates have been dropping for decades – and that we need a COVID-19 leader far more than a law-and-order police commander-in-chief. An October 2019 Pew Research Center report noted that Federal Bureau of Investigation data show that violent crimes plummeted 51% between 1993 and 2018. To be sure, there’s been a recent spate of homicides, including killing of children, and that’s an ominous sign. This tends to happen because of the “Ferguson effect”, a slowdown in police enforcement after an incident that leads to mistrust of cops and lower police morale. But these numbers don’t come close to offsetting the long trend of a safer America.

What’s ironic is that the police and protesters actually have a lot in common. The Washington Post captured this well in a July 26 profile of Thomas Parker, a Huntsville, Alabama police officer. He had become a cop to make felony arrests, but mental health calls had mushroomed from one or two a month to 3,000 a year. He had just finished 16 hours of mental health de-escalation training, compared with 544 hours of physical control tactics and 188 hours of firearms training. Huntsville’s police budget was $51 million while the behavioral health programs budget was $800,000. Hence the reliance on police for those calls. The story focused on Parker’s deft handling of a woman with mental health issues who was brandishing a gun and a butcher knife while neighbors and their cell phone cameras were at the ready – Parker’s worst nightmare. In the end, the woman consented to be taken away for an evaluation – the outcome her husband wanted.

Huntsville, Alabama police officer Thomas Parker wonders why police officers such as himself, instead of behavioral health experts, are being called upon to deal with civilians suffering mental health issues.

An officer who trained Parker complained that the police had to do things unrelated to law enforcement, yet if they screw up because they’re not specialists, they’re held accountable. “I feel like if they care enough to send us to those calls a few times a day, they should allocate money for someone that’s an expert,” the officer told Parker. Parker agreed. So would a “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) activist.

You would not hear such sensible sentiments from Trump, a supposed supporter of the police. Of course, facts rarely are a deterrent for Trump, who will paint Biden as a puppet of the radical fringe even though Biden supports what Parker and his colleague advocate. Trump’s stock-in-trade is to sell fear, warranted or not. And he will try to make it warranted. Beyond battles that administration militia deployments have stoked, Trump no doubt can count on more unrest sparked by white supremacists like the Umbrella Man, who started rioting in Minneapolis by smashing store windows. Add to the recipe just one terrorism incident, and it’s more grist for Trump’s ads.

Biden’s big lead in the polls is likely to shrink as Election Day nears since margins typically do so. As a result, Democrats can ill afford to give Trump such a generous present, which could peel off votes from the center and right. Will reallocating police funding – a perfectly reasonable position – look naïve come November? What will have more impact, the decades-long decline in crime rates or Trump’s ads? I hope Trump’s tropes will prove ineffective, but there are no guarantees if voters think it’s all about defunding the police. And the radicals have fallen for Trump’s bait.

2. Obstructing police reform. Democrats in the Senate nixed a debate on the Republican police reform bill. That was a mistake. The Democrats looked like they were blocking reform, something that could endanger support from the left. The Democrats should have allowed debate and passage of the GOP measure. It would have gone to a conference with the House, which passed its own bill. Then the House-Senate conferees would have tried to negotiate a compromise. Whether or not they succeeded, Democrats would not look as if they had aborted the normal legislative process by meathead intransigence.

The fact is there were some ideas in the Republican bill that were similar to proposals in the House measure, such as using the threat of withholding federal funds to pressure police departments to ban chokeholds. Since local police departments need the federal funds, the threats likely would have been an effective incentive. Did the Senate bill go as far as the House bill? No. Is something better than nothing? Yes. Senate Democrats blew it on both the optics and the substance. Another gift for Trump.

3. Claiming police racial bias when it may not exist. This is complicated so bear with me. Let me start by explaining that I am sympathetic to BLM. At a recent BLM rally I attended in Bethesda, Maryland, a young Black1 speaker said she agreed that all lives matter and added that all houses matter, too, but noted that you don’t send fire trucks to homes that are not on fire. That analogy makes sense.

I also don’t believe that a few bad apples in police departments explain the data that suggest bias in such areas as traffic stops and nonlethal use of force by police. No, there is clearly systemic bias within police ranks. That said, I have reservations about the conventional wisdom that there is a pandemic of lethal police force being perpetrated on Black civilians. What is missing from that argument is context. Census data showed that in 2019, Black civilians comprised 13.4% of American civilians while White civilians accounted for 76.3%. Yet Black civilians accounted for 32% of those fatally shot by police, while White civilians accounted for 52%, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. That sounds like a disproportionate number of Black civilian fatalities. But crime doesn’t follow census data. In 2018, Office of Justice Programs data show, Black suspects accounted for 38% of arrests for murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, robbery, and aggravated assault (rape statistics were not in the database).

I suspect that this statistic, rather than census data, is the right benchmark and that the data about criminal involvement – rather than racial bias – could be the reason for the fatality differential. More on this later, but suffice to say that Democrats and their allies give Trump another gift wrapped with a big bow if they make an argument about racial bias involving fatal police shootings that is not, for want of a better term, bulletproof.

  1. Traffic stops. Let’s start with an area where there does seem to be clear evidence of bias: traffic stops. A PBS Newshour segment reported that in Missouri in 2018, Black drivers were 91% more likely than White drivers to be pulled over for a traffic stop. In North Carolina from 2002–2016, Black drivers were 63% more likely to be pulled over, according to Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina. A Stanford University study of 95 million traffic stops by 21 state patrol agencies and 35 municipal police agencies showed that Black drivers were 43% more likely than Whites to be pulled over during the day, when police can see who is driving. The discrepancy disappears at night, when cops can’t see the driver. A few bad apples can’t explain these stunning statistics.

    The intuitive reaction that the numbers indicate racial bias, while understandable, should not be the end of the analysis. From an economic efficiency standpoint, if stopping a Black driver statistically has a higher probability of finding contraband (drugs, guns, alcohol, etc.) and producing an arrest, it makes sense if cops stop Black drivers at a higher rate than they stop White drivers. This is called statistical bias because data support the discrepancy. It is not solely a product of a cop’s racial prejudice.

    Do the data show that the differential is justified? Let’s take a look at numbers that the city of Durham, North Carolina collected for the first half of 2019. Of the 7,616 police stops, 63% of the drivers were Black drivers while 34% were White drivers. Black residents account for 41% of the population, so the traffic stop rate is disproportionately high. (Similar disparities occurred in Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh, Fayetteville, and Winston-Salem.) Was the arrest percentage the same for Black and White drivers, suggesting there was a basis for the higher traffic stop rate for Black drivers? No. No enforcement action was taken for 61% of the stops for Black drivers vs. 53% for White drivers. This suggests there was no justification for the discrepancy in traffic stops.

    The city reached a different conclusion, however, saying there was no evidence of unexplainable disparities among the officers. The stops were “consistent with the demographics and crime statistics of their assigned areas,” the report said.

    The book Suspect Citizens, whichanalyzed 20 million traffic stops in North Carolina, also found that Black drivers were more likely to be stopped and searched than White drivers, but less likely to be found with contraband after discretionary searches. The hit rate was 36% for White drivers and 33% for Black drivers. Even after controlling for stops in high-crime areas, skin color seemed to be the only explanation for the race differential in traffic stops.

  2. Use of force. Traffic stops are more than an annoyance – and can turn deadly – but they are not at the heart of racial turmoil today. Police use of force is. This issue presents three types of subtopics: anecdotes about deaths at the hands of police, discrimination in nonlethal uses of force, and discrimination in fatal uses of force.

    1. Anecdotes: Some victims such as George Floyd should be alive today. The scenes on bodycams and cell phones are heartbreaking and outrageous. Those who watched Floyd’s final nine minutes of life no doubt think that never would happen to a White man. But they would be wrong. Podcaster Sam Harris notes the case of Tony Timpa. Back in 2016, Dallas police kept their knee on the back of the unarmed 32-year-old White man for 13 minutes – longer than what Floyd experienced. Timpa had called 911 himself for help when he was off his prescription medication for schizophrenia and depression, according to the Dallas Morning News. Timpa died while in custody as the police cracked jokes about him. Imagine if such a video involving a Black man had gone viral. Also in 2016, Time magazine published an article with a long list of White civilians killed in situations that would spark outrage for Black victims. Like Timpa’s case, the others remain invisible to the public.

      This is not to diminish in any way the importance of the lengthy list of Black victims. But they are anecdotes, not rigorous data analysis that prove something is systemic. It’s like combining Trump saying he took hydroxychloroquine and is fine, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro doing the same, and Houston doctor Stella Immanuel saying the drug was effective for her patients (when she’s not talking about the harm of having sex with demons).

      These anecdotes about the drugs prove nothing. But they have political heft. The anecdotes about Black deaths at the hands of police are equally political, frankly. But they are powerful, indisputable (unlike Trump’s), and most important galvanizing – as they should be. But do they represent racism or something else: horrendous police practices? As Harris asks, is it likely the officer on George Floyd’s neck, Derek Chauvin, intended to kill Floyd in a racist act in front of a crowd of people with cell phones taping his every move? Is it likely the officer on Timpa’s back who thought Timpa had fallen asleep intended to kill him? The more likely explanation is that cops do awful things and – unlike Huntsville, Alabama police officer Thomas Parker – display not a whit of empathy. If they don’t understand the consequences of their actions, that’s a pretty severe indictment. These tragic incidents must lead to police reforms. But don’t argue, as Trump does, that the anecdotes prove more than they do, a point I will expand on below. The anecdotes don’t prove racism. They prove the need for an overhaul of police practices, and that’s seismic enough.

      The author is sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement, but questions whether there is a pandemic of lethal police force being perpetrated on Black civilians. In this July 12, 2020 photo, we see where New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio authorized the slogan “Black Lives Matter” to be painted in front of Trump Tower on 5th Avenue in Manhattan.
    3. Nonlethal use of force: In a 2016 empirical analysis of racial differences in use of police force, Harvard economist Roland Fryer2 accounted for 125 variables in police-civilian contacts such as encounter characteristics, civilian behavior, and precincts. He found that Black and Latinx3 civilians are more than 50% more likely than White civilians to experience nonlethal force in their interactions with police: being thrown to the ground or against a wall or tazed. The variables reduce but don’t eliminate these racial differences, which were consistent with, if not dispositive proof of, bias.

      Fryer looked at four sets of data. The first was New York City’s Stop, Question, and Frisk program, which had about 5 million observations. The second was the Police-Public Contact Survey, which contained civilians’ descriptions of their police contacts. Another, collected for the study, was a compilation of summaries of incidents in which a cop discharged a weapon (hits and misses) in Austin, Dallas, Houston, six large Florida counties, and Los Angeles County. The fourth data set was a random sample of incidents in Houston where the arrest code suggests lethal force is more likely to be justified (for example, attempted murder of, or assault on, a police officer).

      For the New York City data, Fryer analyzed precinct statistics that were a proxy for “dangerousness”:  income, education, and unemployment. He divided the precincts in thirds, from minimum racial differences to larger differences. He found no racial differences in outcomes in the three segments. Yet when police reports indicate the same level of compliance with police orders, Blacks were 21.2% more likely than Whites to have force used on them.

      Relying on police data may be problematic. They are neither comprehensive nor standardized. Fryer acknowledged the data may not be representative because the figures came from self-selecting police departments willing to share their data. They may have done so knowing that they would look good. And, of course, some of the data may suffer from police bias.

      And it may be worse than mere bias. Philip Stinson, a criminologist and professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University, told CNN in June that it’s common for police to lie in reports. He tracked more than 10,000 cases in which nonfederal officers were arrested and found that about 6.3% involved false reports or statements. About a quarter of those cases also involved alleged acts of police violence, and the problem is probably more common than the data suggest, he said. Many people have seen the video of officers in Buffalo, New York pushing a 75-year-old man to the ground. Police initially said he tripped and fell. Police said Floyd resisted arrest, but the video showed he didn’t. Police said Timpa resisted arrest, but again the video didn’t show that. He struggled to breathe. That was all.

      Yet even with a potentially self-serving, self-selection of data, Fryer found differentials that likely were the result of racial bias.

    4. Use of force that leads to death: On the one hand, we have an astonishing event: On July 14, Trump actually stated something that is true: more White civilians than Black civilians die at the hands of police. On the other hand, BLM advocates counter that’s no surprise because there are so many more White than Black civilians, and Black civilians are disproportionate victims of police shootings. Both sides remind me of my wife saying I never passed the bar exam – when I never took it. Trump, BLM, and my wife all are making statements that are absolutely true and utterly misleading because they lack context, as I explained above.

      Let’s look at some more data. The Washington Post has tracked fatal police shootings since 2015, and the number is about 1,000 each year. The Post notes that probability theory would predict this: “It holds that the quantity of rare events in huge populations tends to remain stable absent major societal changes, such as a fundamental shift in police culture or extreme restrictions on gun ownership.” And the “population” of police contacts with civilians is huge: 53.5 million civilians had contacts with police in 2015, the most recent year that data are available, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). (An interesting side note, according to the BJS: total imprisonment fell 15% from 2008 to 2018, including a 28% drop for Black civilians.) Shootings thus account for a mere 0.00002% of police encounters.

      The truth is that most activists and Democrats, including presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden, aren’t talking about getting rid of all public safety officials. But some misbegotten radicals are. In this photo from June 11, 2020, we see a protester in Minneapolis calling for police services to have their funding cut.

      That doesn’t sound like a pandemic. And other data are consistent with that. In 2019, Los Angeles Magazine reported, Los Angeles police officers shot 26 people, down from 33 the previous year, 48 in 2015, and the three-decade high of 115 in 1990. In fact, 2019 was the lowest number in three decades. The number of fatal shootings also has declined. In homicide-plagued Chicago, the total number of police shootings dropped from more than 100 in 2011 to 44 in 2015, according to the Chicago Tribune.

      What’s more, Fryer’s study found no racial differences in officer shootings when he took into account the 125 variables. Indeed, he found that Black civilians were 24.2% less likely than non-Black civilians to be shot. Remember the traffic stops suggesting bias because more Black drivers were stopped, but fewer were arrested since they had no contraband? Well, the data are different in the lethal force category. Fryer found that in cases involving White officers, 84.2% of White suspects involved in a police shooting had a weapon, while 80.9% of Black suspects did – not a statistically significant difference.

      Fryer’s conclusion is a point that a misunderstood Tulsa police officer, Maj. Travis Yates, tried to make, perhaps inartfully, when he cited Fryer’s work and said that based on crime statistics, the predicted number of Black civilians shot by police should be 24% higher than it is. He was making a statistical point, not issuing a call to arms.

      Fryer has his critics, who say he uses the wrong methodology. For example, Fryer’s economic analysis – weighing the costs of discrimination against the benefits of maximizing arrests per traffic stop – might make sense in analyzing how to maximize efficiency for controlling contraband in cars. But police are not interested in maximizing shootings, so critics say that using the same cost-benefit analysis to see if there is discrimination in that context doesn’t work. Even if you concede flaws in Fryer’s approach, though, it’s an equally flawed approach to assume police shootings should mirror the population distribution in the census.

      If police allocated their resources by census data instead of where the crime is, they would be justifiably criticized for being moronic. To use the BLM speaker’s approach, if you don’t send fire trucks to houses that are not burning, don’t send police to low crime areas. And if police focus on high crime areas, which in inner cities often are minority neighborhoods, it’s likely that more shooting victims will be Black civilians.

This is a harsh reality. It also was a surprise for Fryer, who is not some right-wing think tank crank. The Black Harvard economist received tenure at 30, won a MacArthur Genius Grant, and was awarded the John Bates Clark Medal as an outstanding American economist under 40.

The even harsher reality is the possibility that this kind of analysis could be political dynamite that Trump would have no qualms detonating. I can hear him saying, “They get shot more because they commit more crimes.” He always uses “they.” And a lot of White heads would nod in approval when he says this. Of course, it would be a distraction from reform of police practices and the economic causes of crime in the first place. But it dovetails perfectly with the racist narrative Trump wants for his campaign.

That’s why Democrats should focus on what is indisputable: the anecdotes that show police reform is imperative. Why not include examples of White victims, too, to broaden the coalition? This is not a political shift to “all lives matter”. The fact is that the more compelling visuals by far are of Black victims, and they are persuasive. By highlighting them instead of ignoring them, by demanding police accountability, Democrats can show “Black Lives Matter”. That’s different from citing a police pandemic that may not exist. Democrats shouldn’t give Trump the chance to use data to make them look like they’re bending the truth the way he constantly does. Democrats don’t need to. Stick to the facts. Don’t overplay your hand. That’s the way for Democrats to win.

1. I am using the relatively recent convention of capitalizing both Black and White to give the same respect to both groups.

2. Harvard suspended Fryer in 2019 for two years for engaging in unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. He apologized for off-color jokes and offending anyone in his work environment.

3. I am using the relatively recent convention of Latinx, which includes Latinos and Latinas.

Stan’s biography can be found here.

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