Mises Wire

The War on Cops: Where’s the Evidence?

In a previous post, I argued that there is little evidence for the existence of a “war on cops,” at least when measured in terms of the number of police officers feloniously killed. Some readers suggested that such a measure is too simplistic and does not capture precisely what is meant by commentators when they call it a war. In response to this, I consulted one of foremost proponents of the war on cops narrative, Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute. According to her book, The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe, the war does not consist primarily of violence against police officers, but rather lack of proper fealty to what Will Grigg so appropriately dubbed “the punitive priesthood.” That is, the main artillery in this war is criticism of the police, with premeditated violence against the police only being a manifestation of that criticism.

Mac Donald argues that such criticism has created a “Ferguson Effect” by which police officers are now hesitant to engage in the type of proactive policing (e.g. stop-and-frisk, zero tolerance, enforcement of low-level misdemeanors) she claims was so effective in helping to reduce crime in New York City in the 1990s; consequently, crime rates have gone up in cities where cops have “de-policed.”

However, the only evidence she provides is a small handful of cities where the number of stop-and-frisks or arrests went down and crime went up, with the time periods in each city selected in order to be as favorable as possible to her case. She provides no examples to support her argument in the other direction, i.e. cities that did not de-police and thus did not experience an increase in crime. Interestingly, even if the Ferguson Effect hypothesis were accurate, it is ironic that it is primarily advanced by those who so often tell us how heroic police are, as it puts officers in a very poor light. Essentially, the Ferguson Effect states that police officers know what to do to prevent crime but let it happen because they are too afraid of being criticized.

Mac Donald’s argument may have made more sense if it had relied more on actual constraints on cops’ ability to engage in aggressive policing, such as federal consent decrees or civil rights litigation. She does mention these things, but they play so minor a role in her book, most likely because they are not prevalent enough to support her narrative. Beyond this, there is not much more to say about her characterization of “the war on cops.” Indeed, half of the book is not even about the police, but about race, inner city crime, and the criminal justice system more generally. It seems that the book is less of an effort to defend the police than an attempt to argue against the narrative that cops are racist. For example, at one point she argues that police shoot unarmed whites under questionable circumstances more frequently than blacks. A more fitting title might have been, “Why I Think Cops Aren’t Racist.”

Perhaps most disappointing about the book was the fact that it received Thomas Sowell’s endorsement. In light of this, it is quite ironic how closely Mac Donald’s narrative conforms to modus operandi of the Anointed that Sowell criticizes in his The Vision of the Anointed. The Anointed will declare something a crisis, even if circumstances regarding the “crisis” have been getting better over time. Just as poverty had been on a long-term downward trend before the war on poverty was declared, so has violence against police officers over the last few decades. This is why Mac Donald’s war on cops narrative must rely on unmeasurable notions and anecdotes. For the Anointed, facts may be be marshaled for a position already taken, but empirical evidence regarding the effects of a policy is not consulted. Mac Donald is almost dogmatic about the effectiveness broken windows policing; there is no acknowledgment of the numerous studies that question whether it was actually responsible for the crime decrease in the 1990s.

Ultimately, Heather Mac Donald gives us little reason to believe there is anything that could be reasonably be called a war being perpetrated against cops, and that’s not really what her book is even about. Rather, it is arguments about why she thinks the criminal justice system isn’t racist, why criminality is more prevalent among black individuals, why Black Lives Matter is awful, and so on. As such, the search continues for evidence sufficient to demonstrate that a war on cops exists.

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