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Guest Commentary / September 26, 2022

Unraveling the Myth of Police Brutality

Useful answers require intelligent questions, neither of which characterize the debate.

By Mark W. Fowler

“What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what sort of person you are.” —C.S. Lewis

The names Breanna Taylor, George Floyd, Freddie Green, Eric Garner, and Daunte Wright have come to represent symbols of perceived systemic police racism and excessive violence. Pundits and politicians eager to climb aboard whatever grievance wagon may give them attention have fanned the flames of hatred and suspicion, pitting segments of society against each other and the police. Thus, a myth of widespread police misconduct has been promoted at the expense of the police and those segments of society that are at highest risk of harm from weakening the police.

From a human perspective, we ask a great deal of policemen. They are the ones who deal with the detritus of human existence. On a daily basis, they must deal with the crushed bodies of motor vehicle accident victims, drunken spats between lovers, lost children, lost pets, psychotic patients, mischievous teenagers, shoplifters, and murderers and their victims. They are bullied by those who deem themselves privileged and assaulted by those whom they must restrain or arrest. It is not a job for everyone, and it is a blessing to society that there are those willing to do it at all.

It is important to acknowledge the tragedy of untimely deaths of anyone in a police confrontation. But it is also important to properly assess claims of widespread police brutality to determine what, if any, reforms are needed and to maintain a stable and safe society.

Rafael Mangual, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, has done detailed research on the question and eloquently summarized his findings in his book, Criminal (In)Justice: What the Push for Decarceration and Depolicing Gets Wrong and Who It Hurts Most. He deals with a number of misconceptions about policing and punishment that are prevalent today.

It is often alleged that the United States has a significantly higher rate of incarceration than similar countries in Europe. Superficially, that is true. But when the prevalence of violent crime is considered, the picture is different. Mangual observes that in 2018 in Germany, England, and Wales, there were a total of 3,197 murders and homicides across a population of 142 million people, or a murder rate of 2.2 per 100,000. By contrast, in selected neighborhoods in Baltimore, Chicago, St. Louis, and Detroit, there were 336 murders from a population of 472,704, resulting in a murder rate of 71 per 100,000. We incarcerate at a higher rate than comparable countries because we have more crime, especially violent crime, than other countries. By way of further comparison, in Germany, 14% of those convicted of homicide get life imprisonment, while in the United States, only 9% do. In the United Kingdom, firearms convictions carry a minimum sentence of five years, whereas in the U.S., similar offenders only serve an average of 15 months. But there are far fewer firearms in the United Kingdom and far more offenders in the United States.

A second prevalent myth is that many prisoners are incarcerated for minor, nonviolent offenses such as drug possession or are first offenders who could be safely diverted to other forms of punishment. In reality, about 50% of state prisoners are incarcerated for four major types of offenses: murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. Fourteen percent are in prison for drug offenses, most of which are for trafficking, not mere possession. It is also important to observe that these statistics represent what prisoners were convicted of, and since most criminal convictions are obtained by plea bargains, the actual offense may reflect a less serious category of behavior than what the prisoner was actually involved in. Moreover, many of these prisoners have multiple prior arrests and convictions; i.e., they have had second and third chances.

The third myth is that our society disproportionately incarcerates males of color. Consider an observation made to Mangual by a black police officer: “A truly racist cop isn’t the guy constantly getting out of his car, frisking people, and clearing corners to try and prevent (stuff) from happening. A truly racist cop is the guy that says ‘(Forget )'em, let 'em kill each other.’”

Police patrols and police-civilian interactions occur most often where crime occurs most often. And crime occurs most often in communities predominately populated by people of color. The obverse is also true. According to NYPD’s Supplemental Homicide Reports, between 2016 and 2019 black and Hispanic constituted 86% of homicide victims and 89% of homicide perpetrators. It can easily be seen then that the people at greatest risk from predation by crime are the very ones whom the politicians claim to care most about.

A look at homicide crime statistics in New York City from 1990 to 1999 is instructive. Black New Yorkers suffered a gun homicide rate of 35 per 100,000 in 1990 while white New Yorkers suffered a homicide rate of 15 per 100,000. As a result of Mayor Giuliani’s enforcement tactics, by 1999 the black homicide rate had plummeted to less than 10 per 100,000 and the white homicide rate to less than five per 100,000. Tough policing works.

Notwithstanding media claims to the contrary, there is not an epidemic of civilians being killed in encounters with police officers. In 2019, police shot and killed just over 1,000 individuals, nearly all of whom were armed and dangerous. This number has held steady for several years. Of those, 235 were black. By contrast, in Chicago in 2020, there were 521 black victims of homicides. Nationally, in 2018, there were over 10,000,000 arrests, representing only a part of all police contacts with civilians. This resulted in over 3,000 polices shootings (not fatalities). If attributed to individual encounters, then less than .03% — or three contacts out of 10,000 contacts — resulted in a shooting. Similarly, a paper published in the The Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery studied one million calls for service. Physical force was used in one of 128 arrests, and only 1.8% of suspects subdued by force sustained mild or moderate injuries.

Police shootings do not occur in a vacuum. When they occur, they are investigated and, generally speaking, only about 2.5% of incidents result in a finding of excessive use of force. While more training is touted as the solution for police violence, the fact is that the incidence of true police use of excessive force is relatively rare. Being that police officers are humans in a very high-stress job, it may be we have wrung all the benefit of deescalation we can.

The outcome of interaction with the police is driven primarily by the actions of the citizen. Resistance, possession of a deadly weapon, and physical aggression are far more likely to generate an adverse outcome for the civilian than accepting the fact of arrest and litigating issues in the courtroom. No police officer wants to shoot. No police officer wants to be sued or charged for excessive use of force. All police officers are humans on whom we as a society have cast an enormous load. We would all be better served if the tone of our discourse was turned down.

During the riots of 2020, a reporter for a major media outlet described the behavior of the rioters as “mostly peaceful,” which was patently false and laughable in light of a clearly burning building behind him. The echo chamber of the media feeding a false narrative of widespread police brutality played a role in more riots, more injuries, more property destruction, and an unwarranted animosity toward the police. Legislation and declarations intended to curtail police power led to an increase in violence all cross the country. The fault for this can be laid at the feet of progressives and the progressive-minded media carrying an answer in search of a problem. But useful answers require intelligent questions, neither of which characterize the police use-of-force debate.

Mark Fowler is a former attorney and board-certified physician. He may be reached at [email protected]

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