Heather Mac Donald: Our legal order frays

Heather Mac Donald is the author of the book of the moment if not the year: The War On Cops: How the New Attack On Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe. This is the book’s chapter 11, “America’s Legal Order Begins to Fray.” Heather writes:

“I’m deliberately not getting involved in things I would have in the 1990s and 2000s,” an emergency-services officer in New York City tells me. “I won’t get out of my car for a reasonable-suspicion stop; I will if there’s a violent felony committed in my presence.” He is not alone in this reluctance to engage. This is what law enforcement has come to after two decades of the most remarkable crime drop in U.S. history.

The virulent antipolice campaign that began with a now-discredited narrative about a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, has made police officers think twice before undertaking precisely the type of enforcement that led to that twenty-year crime drop. The Black Lives Matter movement proclaims that the police are a lethal threat to blacks and that the criminal-justice system is pervaded by racial bias. The media amplify that message on an almost daily basis. Officers now worry about becoming the latest racist cop of the week, losing their job or being indicted if a good-faith encounter with a suspect goes awry or is merely distorted by an incomplete cell-phone video.

With police so discouraged, violent crime has surged in dozens of American cities, as we have seen. The alarming murder increase prompted an emergency meeting of the Major Cities Chiefs Association in August 2015. Homicides were up 76 percent in Milwaukee, 60 percent in St. Louis, and 56 percent in Baltimore for the year through mid-August, compared with the same period in 2014. Murder was up 47 percent in Minneapolis and 36 percent in Houston through mid-July.

But something even more fundamental than public safety may be at stake. There are signs that the legal order itself is breaking down in urban areas. “There’s a total lack of respect out there for the police,” says a female sergeant in New York. “ The perps feel more empowered to carry guns because they know that we are running scared.”

The lawful use of police power is being met by hostility and violence, which is often ignored by the press. In Cincinnati, a small riot broke out in late July 2015 when the police arrived at a drive-by shooting scene, where a four-year-old girl had been shot in the head and critically injured. Bystanders loudly cursed at officers who had started arresting suspects at the scene on outstanding warrants, according to a witness I spoke with.

During antipolice demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2015, 18-year-old Tyrone Harris opened fire at police officers, according to law-enforcement officials, and was shot and wounded by police in response. A crowd pelted the cops with frozen water bottles and rocks, wounding three officers, while destroying three police cars and damaging businesses, Ferguson police said. Some protesters reportedly chanted, “We’re ready for what? We’re ready for war.”

That same month, an officer in Birmingham, Alabama, was beaten unconscious with his own gun by a suspect in a car stop. There was gloating on social media. “Pistol whipped his ass to sleep,” read one Twitter post. The officer later said that he had refrained from using force to defend himself for fear of a media backlash.

Officers are being challenged in their most basic efforts to render aid. A New York cop in the Bronx tells me that he was trying to extricate a woman pinned under an overturned car in July 2015 when a bystander stuck his cell-phone camera into the officer’s face, trying to bait him into an argument. “You can’t tell me what to do,” the bystander replied when asked to move to the sidewalk, the cop reports. “A few years ago, I would have taken police action,” he says. “Now I know it won’t end well for me or the police department.”

Supervisors may roll up to an incident where trash and other projectiles are being thrown at officers and tell the cops to get into their cars and leave. “What does that do to the general public?” wonders a New York detective. “Every time we pass up on an arrest because we don’t want a situation to blow up, we’ve made the next cop’s job all the harder.”

Jim McDonnell, head of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the nation’s largest, tells me that the current anti-cop animus puts the nation in a place where it hasn’t been since the 1960s. “The last ten years have witnessed dramatic decreases in crime,” Sheri McDonnell says. “Now, in a short period of time, we are seeing those gains undone.”

Even the assassination of police officers doesn’t appear to cool the antipolice rhetoric. The day after a Houston police deputy, Darren Goforth, was murdered while filling his gas tank in August 2015, Black Lives Matter protesters—as an online video chillingly attests—marched in St. Paul, chanting: “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon.”

An organizer with the Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis refused to apologize for the tenor of the movement, while denying that it condoned violence. “Until the police aren’t the dangerous force that black people fear, the rhetoric won’t change,” she told the New York Times, after Houston sheriff Ron Hickman, in the wake of Deputy Goforth’s murder, pleaded for antipolice protesters to temper their language. A Texas state senator, Garnet Coleman, assailed Sheriff Hickman for showing “a lack of understanding of what is occurring in this country when it comes to the singling out of African-Americans.”

The irony is that the historic reduction of crime in the United States since the 1990s was predicated on police singling out African-Americans for their protection. Using victims’ crime reports, cops focused on violent hot spots; since black Americans are disproportionately the victims of crime, just as blacks are disproportionately its perpetrators, effective policing was heaviest in minority neighborhoods. The cops were there because they do believe that black lives matter.

In the recent eruption of violent crime, the overwhelming majority of victims have been black. The Baltimore Sun reported that July 2015 was the bloodiest month in the city since 1972, with 45 people killed in 30 days. All but two were black.

Police officials have told me that they long to hear America’s leaders change the tone of the national conversation before respect for the rule of law itself deteriorates even further, and more innocent people suffer as a consequence. So far, they’re still waiting.

Heather Mac Donald is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. This piece is excerpted from her new book, The War on Cops: How the New Attack On Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe, published by Encounter Books. It appeared in slightly different form in the Wall Street Journal of September 13, 2015. It appears here with the kind permission of Heather Mac Donald and Encounter Books. Copyright © Heather Mac Donald 2016. All rights reserved.