Are protests about police killings causing crime to rise?

Summary: First came the revelations of brutal police killings of unarmed people for little or no reason. Then the blowbacks of police excuses and rising crime. How we deal with this will have large effects on our cities and show how well we can deal with problems in American society.

Shadow of the police
US News & World Report, 5 May 2015.

Indications that the 3 decades of declining crime has reversed

Lots of stories about rising rates of crime. “Quiet Santa Clarita adjusts to recent jump in violence.” “After a 12-year decline, crime in L.A. surges in first half of 2015.” “Several big U.S. cities see homicide rates surge.” “Baltimore killings soar to a level unseen in 43 years.”

Conservatives explain what’s causing crime to increase

“The criminal element is feeling empowered’ by anti-police sentiment.”
—- Police Chief Sam Doston of St Louis.

Conservatives have the explanation. It’s a mixture of evil and lies, as in this Wall Street Journal op-ed by Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute — Excerpt…


The most plausible explanation of the current surge in lawlessness is the intense agitation against American police departments over the past 9 months. … The news media pump out a seemingly constant stream of stories about alleged police mistreatment of blacks, with the reports often buttressed by cellphone videos that rarely capture the behavior that caused an officer to use force. … Acquittals of police officers for the use of deadly force against black suspects are now automatically presented as a miscarriage of justice. Proposals aimed at producing more cop convictions abound, but New York state seems especially enthusiastic about the idea. …

Similar “Ferguson effects” are happening across the country as officers scale back on proactive policing under the onslaught of anti-cop rhetoric. Arrests in Baltimore were down 56% in May compared with 2014. “Any cop who uses his gun now has to worry about being indicted and losing his job and family,” a New York City officer tells me. “Everything has the potential to be recorded. A lot of cops feel that the climate for the next couple of years is going to be nonstop protests.”


… Even if officer morale were to miraculously rebound, policies are being put into place that will make it harder to keep crime down in the future. Those initiatives reflect the belief that any criminal-justice action that has a disparate impact on blacks is racially motivated.

… “There are no real consequences for committing property crimes anymore,” Los Angeles Police Lt. Armando Munoz told Downtown News earlier this month, “and the criminals know this.” Unless the demonisation of law enforcement ends, the liberating gains in urban safety will be lost,”

————————-  End excerpt.  ————————-

This is so false it’s delusional. First, it’s unclear that the national crime rate has increased. The BBC explains “Why has the murder rate in some US cities suddenly spiked?” — “Violent crime is not going up everywhere. … Short-term spikes are statistically unreliable, especially if they come after a long-term decline, and could just be a blip, said Dr James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.”

Second, and more important, her description of the outrageous police shootings is false. Tamir Rice (12) was killed on sight. Unarmed man Charly Leundeu Keunang (43) was shot 6 times, 2 with the gun almost touching his chest (leaving contact wounds). An out of control policeman tackles and arrests a girl for no reason. Samuel Dubose was shot in the head for no reason after a trivial traffic stop, after which he and his partner lied about the incident (a typical aspect of these incidents, suggesting that the ones we know about (because caught on video) are only a small fraction of the total. Each month brings a new crop of these incidents.

Third, the increased rate of some crime in some cities doesn’t mean that police have stopped shooting people. The Guardian’s tracking shows July was the deadliest month of 2015 for police-related killings: 118, 20 of whom were unarmed. The Killed by Police database shows 681 for the first 7 months of 2015, more than in the same period of 2014.

Crime under the microscope

A better explanation for the rising crime rates

“Fright, like pain, is a most uncomfortable feeling, and man will do almost anything to get rid of it. … One of the most effective ways of getting rid of anxiety is to become aggressive. When a person can get out of the passive state of fright and begin to attack, the painful nature of fright disappears.”

The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness by Erich Fromm (1973).

There is another possibility. Police killing unarmed people — sometimes for trivial reasons, sometimes for no reason — erodes the public’s trust not just in the police but in the legitimacy of our society. Why follow the laws if the police don’t?

This erodes the social capital that holds us together, that distinguishes developed nations from third world states. It’s another symptom of America’s rot, not offset by our growing wealth, power, or technology.

A police reform puzzle

We must relearn hard-won lessons from our past

We need not look to foreign experience when our own history provides ample examples of police lawlessness. Violent crime quadruped between 1960 and its 1991 peak. Two-thirds along that that expansion, the Robert N. Brenner and Marjorie Kravitz of the Department of Justice wrote “A Community Concern: Police Use of Deadly Force“. It reads as though written today, showing how quickly we forgot lessons painfully learned from the war on crime. For example…

While there are strong public reactions to police misconduct — on those rare occasions when it is caught on tape — it’s still a rarity. The Washington Post reports that “Thousands dead, few prosecuted” — “Among the thousands of fatal shootings at the hands of police since 2005, only 54 officers have been charged, a Post analysis found. Most were cleared or acquitted in the cases that have been resolved.”

To understand the underlying problem see “Why It’s Impossible to Indict a Cop“ by Chase Madar — “It’s not just Ferguson—here’s how the system protects police.”  Also see “Training Officers to Shoot First, and He Will Answer Questions Later“, about a one-stop service training police to kill and defending them in court.

“There are places in the United States where there are mutual states of anxiety felt by both the community and by members of law enforcement agencies. They are virtually in a state of civil war. The threat of force will not lessen the conflict, it will only intensify it. The cycle of fear needs to be reversed.”

The chapter describing research on police killing civilians (aka police homicide, deaths of legal intervention) is interesting, showing how much more they knew about this than we do today. A 1975 paper by Arthur Kober “suggests that two-fifths of the killings were justifiable, one-fifth questionable, and two-fifths unjustifiable.” Another 1975 paper in the same issue showed that…

one-quarter of the victims had no weapon, 15% had a knife or sharp instrument, half had a firearm … one quarter of the victims were shot in the back … more than 30% of the incidents where police officers were killed began with a misdemeanor or less … {and} 30% of the victims had no prior criminal record.

The research repeatedly emphasizes the poor quality of the data and the wide variation of the rate of police killings between cities. However it clearly shows that cell phones and dash cams have uncovered a long-standing problem, and we need not start from scratch to understand it.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about the police, especially these…

  1. Do not talk to the police (important advice in New America).
  2. Police grow more powerful; the Republic slides another step into darkness. Can cellphone cameras save us?
  3. Shootings by police show their evolution into “security services”; bad news for the Republic.
  4. No need for police reform, since only criminals have trouble with police!
  5. Myths and truth about police violence, & why change is coming.
  6. Reforms are coming to America’s police, either with them or over them. Which?

For deeper understanding of these things I recommend Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (2014) and John T. Whitehead’s A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State (2013). Also see The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010) by legal scholar Michelle Alexander.

6 thoughts on “Are protests about police killings causing crime to rise?”

  1. A real concern here involves the question: does police violence against unarmed civilians merely seem to have risen because of the prevalence of cellphone videos uploaded to YouTube and other social media sites…or has police violence against unarmed civilians actually spiked, because the general population is getting restive by watching their income collapse and their jobs disappear under the assault of the 1%, and the police are now acting aggressively to protect the current oppressive regime of the 1%?

    The statistics suggest that police violence actually is up — moreover, police violence is now getting widely deployed against white people, something formerly unheard-of. This appears to be happening because white people are now watching their income decline so that they are becoming part of the mass of low-income riffraff traditionally oppressed by the police.

    This is what happens when the social contract disintegrates and raw force must be substituted for political legitimacy. FM asks the crucial question: “Why follow the law when the police don’t?” More to the point: why follow the law when our leaders and our ruling elites (doctors, lawyers, CEOs, managers, financial wizards) don’t?

    The answer in 2015 America becomes: You must follow the law because if you don’t, we’ll send our goons out to beat you. As opposed to the previous answer in America: You must follow the law because it’s the right thing to do, and everyone will be worse off in our society if you don’t.

    This is the substitution of the “might makes right” philosophy of rule for arguments from political legitimacy and the good of the population as a whole. As America descends increasingly into barbarism, arguments about legitimacy and abstract good become ineffective. The only motivating power increasing becomes the logic of the Papa Doc thug: “Do what we say because if we don’t, we’ll [insert atrocity here: rape your daughter, beat you to death, set your mother on fire, etc.]” In effect, contemporary police and U.S. security services are making Thrasymachus’ arguments from Plato’s Republic:

    1. Justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger
    2. Justice is obedience to laws
    3. Justice is nothing but the advantage of another

    But if #1 is true, then laws are likely to be unjust. If #2 is true, then this places bounds on #1 and #3 which are unlikely to be observed if 1 and 3 are true. If #3 is true, then 1 and 2 become unimportant, since in that case laws are merely window dressing on brute force, and brute force is just one way of gaining advantage over others — lying and deception might be equally effective and much less expensive or less difficult to accomplish.

    In any case, once Thrasymachus’ logic becomes the motivating principle in society, all bets are off. Someone in authority who threatens to beat or shoot you for no reason is not trustworthy, so there’s no point in doing what they say. After all, someone with so little morality as to beat or shoot you or your children is all too likely to beat or shoot or rape you or your children or your wife no matter what you do. So you might as well do it to the person in authority first.

    This bodes ill for a democratic republic.

    1. Thomas,

      “A real concern here involves the question: does police violence against unarmed civilians merely seem to have risen because of the prevalence of cellphone videos”

      The studies I cite from the 1970s strongly suggest that unjustified police killing of civilians is a long-standing problem.

    2. similar argument here regarding public trust: American Homicide by Randolph Roth, Professor of History at Ohio State (2012). Publisher blurg:

      …analyzing American homicide from colonial times to the present—makes for an intriguing if dense read. He distills his argument into several key statistics, all of which hinge upon the fact that Americans are murdered more frequently than citizens in any other first world democracy: U.S. homicide rates are between six and nine per 100,000 people. Roth refutes popular theories about why this is so (e.g., poverty, drugs) and lays out an alternate hypothesis: increases in homicide rates correlate with changes in people’s feelings about government and society, such as whether they trust government and its officials and their sense of kinship with fellow citizens. Roth examines homicides by historical period, race and region, especially significant when comparing the ante- and postbellum North and South—turmoil and divisiveness in the South led to an explosion of murder in some areas during the war that continued during Reconstruction. Readers impatient with statistics or desiring a more narrative overview may be disappointed, but those wanting to learn what history can teach us about this most primal act of aggression will find Roth’s analysis fascinating.

  2. Pingback: Police rattled by spike in violent crimes across US - Middle East Post | Middle East Post

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