Heather Mac Donald’s Red Herrings

Update (May 1, 2021): I have in subsequent blogs on Freedom and Reason walked back the argument made in this blog and the associated TruthOut op-ed published in 2016. I am pictured holding Mac Donald’s 2016 book, The War on Cops, which I should have read before writing my op-ed. In my defense, I was responding to her op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Moreover, there was a string of research that came out after I wrote my op-ed that confirmed Mac Donald’s thesis (see links at the end of the paragraph). Nonetheless, the book is chockfull of statistics that anticipate that body of scholarly research and attention to her arguments would likely have at least moved me to write a more nuanced critique of her work. (See Demoralization and the Ferguson Effect: What the Left and Right Get Right (and Wrong) About Crime and Violence; The Problematic Premise of Black Lives Matter; The Myth of Systemic Racism in Lethal Police-Civilian Encounters; “If They Cared.” Confronting the Denial of Crime and Violence in American Cities.)

Heather Mac Donald’s The War on Cops

In her essay, “The Myths of Black Lives Matter,” published in The Wall Street Journal, Heather Mac Donald writes that “fatal police shootings make up a much larger proportion of white and Hispanic homicide deaths than black homicide deaths.” Citing The Washington Post database of police shootings, Mac Donald reports that “officers killed 662 whites and Hispanics and 258 blacks” in 2015. That means that 28 percent of those killed by the police in 2015 were Black. But blacks are only around 12 percent of the US population.

When Black Lives Matter (BLM) spokespersons say that black lives are at greater risk than white lives to be killed by the police, the evidence Mac Donald uses in her essay supports the movement’s claim. Demographically speaking, black Americans were more than twice as likely to be killed by the police than whites and Latinos combined in 2015. Yet Mac Donald concludes that black overrepresentation in police shootings is a myth. Moreover, Mac Donald’s lumping of whites and Latinos hides the disproportionate number of police shootings of Latinos compared to non-Hispanic whites.

Mac Donald next turns to the FBI’s 2014 homicide numbers to claim that the white and Latino victims of police shootings make up 12 percent of all white and Latino homicide deaths, a statistic that is three times the proportion of black deaths that result from police shootings. She claims that the lower proportion for black deaths is due to the significant black-on-black homicide rate. This is a red herring. The BLM protest is not about black-on-black crime, but about racial disparities in death by cop. Decrying black-on-black homicide after every high-profile killing of a civilian by a cop has become cliché for conservative pundits (and almost obligatory for liberals who want to be taken seriously). But it is entirely beside the point.

Mac Donald attempts to justify police shootings by claiming that officers are killed by black people at a rate 2.5 times higher than the rate at which black people are killed by police. She claims that 40 percent of assailants in cop killings are black. Mac Donald doesn’t specify a time frame, only that these are data the FBI has been collecting for some time. If we look at the FBI figures from 2014 (the latest available), which suits Mac Donald’s analysis better, we find that 22 percent of assailants were black.

That figure, while considerably lower than the figure she uses, still indicates overrepresentation of black Americans in the killing of cops. But what is this comparison supposed to tell us? Forty-two cops were killed by guns in 2015. Using Mac Donald’s percentage of 40 percent, that means 17 cops died at the hands of black assailants (almost twice as many as the FBI’s 2014 figure indicates). If the point is one of comparison, then the number of black people killed by police in the time frame Mac Donald is using is more than 15 times greater than the number of cops killed by black people (almost 30 times greater using the 2014 figures).

Finally, the statistic about white officers being less prone to threat misperception is yet another red herring. Again, BLM is primarily interested in the race of the victim, not the race of the perpetrator per se (although the movement does call for ethnic and racial proportionality in law enforcement to match neighborhood composition). Moreover, Mac Donald’s point rests on the false assumption that racially biased practices must necessarily match the race of the perpetrators. Black officers take up racially biased practices in training and expectation, racially biased practices that put black lives in danger.

“The Black Lives Matter movement has been stunningly successful in changing the subject from the realities of violent crime,” Mac Donald concludes her essay. But who is changing the subject?

As noted, the trend in the number of law enforcement fatalities is lower today than any time since the 1940s. This is due mainly to two facts: violent crime is at historic lows in the United States and gun control. This also means lower levels of fatalities from interpersonal violence generally. Gun ownership has declined sharply over the last half century. America is a much less violent place than it used to be – if by violence we mean civilian-on-civilian violence. 

Yet police killing of civilians is at historically high levels. The year 2015 wasn’t remarkable. In 2014, police killed more than a thousand civilians. For every civilians killed (by gun, vehicle, Taser, beating, suffocation etc.), there are hundreds more injured (brain damaged, paralyzed, traumatized) and thousands more left with their rights violated. The vast majority of victims of police brutality and homicide are unarmed civilians who are in principle innocent until proven guilty in a court of law and, in any case, have done nothing serious even if there is some underlying crime in the situation. They vast majority 0f civilians killed and injured represented no realistic threat to police. Many are elderly, disabled, and mentally ill persons.

Those of us who work in the field of criminal justice have recognized this problem for a long time. So have governments. And experts have long known the reasons this problem exists, persists, and has grown worse. Yet, even when they admit to the problem, governments won’t address the problem with any significant reform agenda. On the contrary, many governments are moving to make it easier to kill and maim civilians without consequence.

Meanwhile, taxpayers are paying out millions of dollars to victims who bring successful law suits against the police, while most other victims remain uncompensated for their injuries and their lost loved ones. Of course, nothing can replace the loss of somebody you love. But there must be accountability, and as long as the police are literally allowed to get away with murder and assault, then taxpayers will continue to bear the cost of an institution out of control.

The solutions to the problem are obvious (or should be): drastically reduce force levels (we have too many cops); end the war on drugs and public order offenses; end confrontational practices of broken windows, stop-and-frisk, checkpoints, and roadblocks; demilitarize the police (no more armored personnel carriers and tanks on our city streets); use SWAT only in live shooter situations; disarm most officers (including Tasers, which have killed hundreds of people and injured hundreds more); train officers in conflict resolution and peacemaking (soldiers are better at this than cops); have high standards in recruiting, keep those with low IQs or abnormal psych profiles off the force (policing it not a good space for bullies); Have every act of force by a police officer reviewed in the same way that any other act of force by any other citizen against another citizen is review; and end the practice of indoctrinating cops by showing them a video of a one-time situation in which a cop runs around in circles begging for his life while a right-wing gun fanatic shoots him multiple times.

“Our officers just want to go home their families.” So do we all. The vast majority of officers go home to their families and eventually retire (early) with their lives and their pensions intact.

See also: Changing the Subject from the Realities of Death by Cop, TruthOut, July 20, 2016.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.