(Page 2 of 2)
A brief review of some troubled police departments might be useful here:
- In 2011, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a critical report on how the New Orleans Police Department handled use-of-force complaints. "To the extent officers do report force," it noted, "supervisors do not conduct investigations sufficient to determine whether the force was justified.…Even the most serious cases of force, such as officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths, are investigated inadequately or not at all."
- In 2013, the DOJ found that the Miami Police Department had violated the Constitution with a "pattern or practice of excessive use of force with respect to firearm discharges." Federal investigators found several shootings were unjustified while others were "questionable at best." Miami had a peculiar policy of returning officers involved in shootings back to street duty before a determination had been made about the propriety of the shooting. The department's shooting review procedures were lackadaisical. In one pending case, the involved officers had not even provided their account of the incident more than three years after it occurred.
- In 2014, the DOJ found systemic policing problems in Cleveland. Notably, the very personnel who were responsible for investigating misconduct admitted that they did not conduct a disinterested inquiry into citizen complaints. Rather, their objective was to cast the accused officer "in the most positive light possible." Police reports that were supposed to explain the legal basis for detaining and searching people lacked specificity, with cops regularly using what the DOJ described as "canned or boiler plate language."
- More recently, the mayors of Baltimore and Chicago asked federal investigators to review their police departments and make recommendations for reform following the deaths of two young black men, Freddie Gray and Laquan McDonald. Gray died after Baltimore cops put him in a police van handcuffed but without a seatbelt; unable to brace himself during the ride, Gray's spine snapped. Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by a white Chicago officer; Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried to settle the case quietly during his re-election struggle, but months later, when a court ordered the video of the shooting released, it contradicted the police account that the shooting was necessary.
Mac Donald ignores all this. Instead she focuses on three points. First, that in the Ferguson case that kicked off a lot of the recent activism over policing, Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown in self-defense, and that the Black Lives Matter movement is thus based on a myth. Second, that federal monitoring of local police departments is expensive and will bring more red tape to police operations. Third, that instead of federal monitors, police departments should be allowed to eradicate misconduct with additional training.
That is the sum total of the analysis. Why are the costs of police misconduct litigation soaring? How can the "blue wall of silence" be reconciled with the rule of law? Do police unions make it difficult for chiefs to fire abusive cops? Does a paramilitary culture contribute to the problem of excessive force? Are we to believe that all of our big-city police departments are actually maintaining high standards of professionalism and ethics? Mac Donald addresses none of these questions. At the very least, you'd expect an explanation of why the training she calls for is so lacking in cities such as New Orleans, Miami, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Chicago. Not in this book.
Over and over again, Mac Donald elides the hard work. Toward the end, there's a lengthy discussion of California's long-festering problem of prison overcrowding, yet even here she refrains from offering clear policy prescriptions—aside from saying that she thinks California should fight federal judicial orders to reduce its prison population. We should keep the prison problem "in the political arena, not the courtroom," she says. Even assuming the merit of that proposition, what then? Stuff four human beings into cells that were built to contain one? Build more prisons? Prune the criminal code by, say, legalizing marijuana? Mac Donald vacillates: "Both sides of the deincarceration debate can claim valid arguments."
Beyond its analytical shortcomings, much of this book is written in an over-the-top polemical style. Barack Obama is not just misguided; he has "betrayed the nation." Black Lives Matter is a "fraud." The New York Times serves up "anti-police propaganda." Columbia Law School professor Jeffrey Fagan's scholarship "might be characterized as a tutorial on lying with statistics." Ending the drug war to alleviate the burden on the police, courts, and prisons is a "delusion."
The most disturbing comment appears in Mac Donald's account of Eric Garner's 2014 death in New York. Police confronted Garner for supposedly selling untaxed cigarettes on the street. When a cop took Garner to the ground in a chokehold, Garner begged the police to let up, saying, "I can't breathe." He lost consciousness and died of cardiac arrest before his ambulance reached a hospital. Even though the entire incident was caught on a bystander's cell phone video and New York City agreed to pay Garner's family $5.9 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit, Mac Donald expresses skepticism that the chokehold actually caused Garner's heart attack. The willful blindness here is astonishing.
What Mac Donald calls a "war on cops" is better described as a much-needed debate about crime, law enforcement tactics, and how to deal with systemic police misconduct. Conservatives have some worthwhile ideas to offer in this debate, but Mac Donald's polemics add heat, not light.
Photo Credit: Encounter Books