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Crime & Justice

‘The War on Cops': How should we talk about contemporary policing?

Protestors march through the streets of St. Paul, Minnesota after the death of Philando Castile on July 7, 2016. Castile was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop on July 6, 2016 in Falcon Heights, MN.
Protestors march through the streets of St. Paul, Minnesota after the death of Philando Castile on July 7, 2016. Castile was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop on July 6, 2016 in Falcon Heights, MN.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

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The shooting deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling by police officers earlier this month renewed a nationwide dialogue about police use of force.

After five Dallas police officers were shot and killed during a protest following Castile and Sterling’s deaths, many called for a re-examination of the often emotionally-charged way we talk about police.

Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at conservative think-tank the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor at City Journal. In “The War on Cops,” she challenges many of the dominant narratives surrounding race and American policing.

Mac Donald is an advocate for the “Ferguson effect”: a hotly-contested idea that police have become less proactive after the shooting death of Michael Brown, causing an uptick in crime. She argues against a racial bias in policing, suggesting instead that race-based critiques of policing actually put minority communities at risk.

"The War on Cops" by Heather Mac Donald
Encounter Books

Interview highlights

Why do you think that the argument that African-American men are disproportionately stopped and disproportionately shot by police is incorrect?

Heather Mac Donald: Police statistics are invariably compared to population ratios and the benchmark. It is true that when you look at police activity regarding blacks — whether it is arrests or stops — there’s a disparity there. As Obama said right before the Dallas shootings, blacks are arrested at twice the rate of whites. Well, that looks live you’ve got racially biased policing, until you take crime rates into account. When you look at who is committing crime, and above all who is being victimized by crime, you see that policing is simply using data to go where people most need assistance — and that’s in minority communities.

In the United States as a whole, blacks are victimized by homicide at six times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined. They are not being killed by police officers, they are not being killed by whites, they are being killed by other blacks.

How does that relate to officers stopping African-Americans versus non-African-Americans?

Officers are being called to areas where there are gang shootings, whether it is in South Los Angeles or the South Bronx.That’s where people are being mowed down by these mindless retaliatory shootings. After a shooting, the police are going to be making stops. They are going to be stopping known gangbangers to let them know that they are being watched. ... We shouldn’t be surprised that the stop rate is higher in areas where there are high levels of street crime.

If I am an African-American man and I get stopped all the time by police — proportionate to violent crime committed by members of my community — how is that fair to me?

It’s a crime tax. It’s a tragedy that law-abiding innocent black males stand a greater chance of getting stopped by the police because they meet a suspect description than white men. I would say that is a disparity that pales in comparison to the fact that they stand a much higher chance of dying in homicide.

None of this is to say that there haven’t been bad shootings over the last two years. It is also not to deny that police have had a horrible history in this country of maintaining the major hypocrisy of American history, which is racial segregation and slavery. The memory of that understandably takes a long time to fade. I think today we’ve been having a conversation about what I think is phantom police racism in order not to talk about what the real problem is: policing is a function of crime today.

For a different perspective on policing, Larry interviews Prof. Malcolm Sparrow about his new book, "Handcuffed."


Heather Mac Donald, Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal; she is the author of numerous books, including “The War on Cops” (Encounter Books, 2016)