Debunking Mythologies Surrounding the American Criminal Justice System

In the face of Antifa/BLM protests, Seattle councilmembers pledged to slash the police budget by half but backtracked after police resisted. There was a budget reduction of about eighteen percent, but it minimized the effects by pursuing strategies such as moving parking enforcement out of the budget (Trumm 2020). Not exactly what the activists were seeking with budget reductions. 

But that did enough it seems. Perhaps not incidentally, the state of Washington set a record for homicides in 2020, with Seattle’s homicide rate increasing almost 70 percent over 2019 (Westneat 2021). This year looks to be just as bad—if not worse. By the end of August, there were more homicides in Seattle than in all of 2019 (King 2021). Heather Mac Donald warned in The War on Cops (2016) that this is the predictable consequence of depolicing and the “Ferguson effect.”

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Data on lethal police-civilian encounters show that a majority of those killed by the police are white, not nonwhite. Twice as many white men are killed by the police every year than are black men. The Washington Post database, which reports that half of those shot by police are white (the majority of those killed by the police are therefore not persons of color), gets to that statistic by separating out Hispanics from whites. Two-thirds of Hispanics identify as white.  (White and black are racial categories, whereas Hispanic is an ethnic category. Most Hispanics are white, while a minority identify as black, American Indian, and Asian.) So, while it is a common belief in American society that the police kill more minorities than whites, it is not true. 

Police said the suspect was killed after aiming a gun at officers.

Moreover, while it is true that black Americans are shot by police at a disproportionate rate (take care not to confuse statistical abstractions with frequencies), statistical evidence of racial disparities by itself is insufficient to infer causation, in this case racism. It is a common error to conflate racial disparity (in education, housing, income, etc.) with racial bias. When the relevant evidence is considered, researchers do not generally find systemic racism in lethal police-civilian encounters. I have covered the topic extensively one Freedom and Reason. I provide a few of those sources here for your convenience: Roland Fryer (2019) finds no racial differences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are considered when turning his attention to the most extreme use of force, i.e., officer-involved shootings. Joseph Cesario and colleagues (2018) find, adjusting for crime, no systematic evidence of anti-black disparities in fatal shootings, fatal shootings of unarmed citizens, or fatal shootings involving misidentification of harmless objects. The authors conclude that, when analyzing all shootings, that exposure to police, given crime rate differences, accounts for the higher per capita rate of fatal police shootings for blacks. Brandon Tregle and colleagues (2018) finds that, when focusing on violent crime arrests or weapons offense arrests, blacks appear less likely to be fatally shot by police officers.

Nor is the claim that US criminal justice overall is systemically racist supported by the facts. We have known this for more than thirty years. In 1987, William Wilbanks published a comprehensive survey of contemporary research studies, searching for evidence of discrimination by police, prosecutors, judges, and prison and parole officers. Among the specific areas considered in his analysis are provisions of counsel, police deployment, use of deadly force, bail decisions, plea bargaining, sentencing patterns, and inmate classification and discipline. Wilbanks finds that, although individual cases of racial prejudice and discrimination do occur in the system, there is insufficient evidence to support a charge of systematic racism against blacks in the criminal justice system. Wilbanks summarizes: “At every point, from arrest to parole, there is little or no evidence of an overall racial effect” (2) The date of publication is significant, as claims that the Reagan presidency had ramped up and generalized racism again were at a fever pitch. A decade later, Sampson and Lauritsen find “little evidence that racial disparities result from systematic, overt bias” (1997, 331). Keep in mind that, at that time, Robert Sampson was the researcher most critical of “broken windows” and stop-and-frisk (see, e.g., Sampson and Raudenbush 1999). Mac Donald’s The War on Cops, published almost two decades later, confirms these findings.

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Another common belief in circulation is that slave patrols were the forerunner of the modern police. There were slave states that had police agencies at the same time there were slave patrols and the agencies and patrols had different origins and separate functions. The Richmond police department, for example, was one or the first formally organized law enforcement agencies in the nation and was separate from the slave patrols in Virginia. Same with the city of Baltimore in Maryland. Both Virginia and Maryland are southern states. After defeating the CSA in the Civil War, during Reconstruction, the USA abolished slave patrols. The modern police have their origin in industrialization and urbanization and were designed to control the proletariat of all races (see Sheldon and Vasiliev 2018). Modern policing in the United States followed the logic of policing in the Great Britain, which did not practice slavery in the homeland.

Modern police agencies from their inception were bureaucratic in form, made up of full-time employees (not community or militia members), had a chain of command with written rules, procedures, and regulations, and were accountable to a central governmental authority. These agencies do not resemble in form or substance the organization and activities of slave patrols. In contrast, slave patrols were armed white citizens who stopped and questioned slaves about their permits to travel. They were organized and disciplined not in the bureaucratic logic of state governments but were civic organizations apart from the administrative state. 

Were both forms of formal social control? Yes. But formal social control systems with policing functions date back thousands of years. We are concerned with the police forces of modernity. Samuel Walker, who you are also reading this semester, locates the origin of modern policing in the London Metropolitan Police in 1929 and the origins of policing in the United States in the 1830s. To be sure, he recognizes that during the time of chattel slavery until Reconstruction, and even during Jim Crow segregation, the police in the southeastern United States were devoted to upholding the racial status quo. For this reason, Walker argues, “[d]iscussions of American police history should generally distinguish between the southeastern state and the rest of the country” (2016, 642).  

The narrative about the police originating in slave patrols is a paradigm of how ideology can corrupt historiography. The project, whether by intent or effect, is to make America generally appear as having the same culture and sensibilities as the southeastern United States during the period of chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation. It’s a political narrative. This is not to say that issues are not political. But in social science we proceed on the basis of objectivity. 

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Finally, a point about what we see because of technology and the role of the crowd. It is true that we are taking note of these things because technology—cameras in our phones, cellular communications, social media platforms—allow us to record and share the sights and sounds of civilian-police encounters. However, the risk this poses is that it can make something appear to be a growing problem when in fact they are not. This false perception risks self-fulfilling prophecies. As Mark Fishman (1978) and others since (Barlow, Barlow, and Chiricos 1995; Chiricos 1998; Chiricos, Padgett, and Gertz 2000) have pointed out, in exhaustive research going back years on the phenomenon known as “crime wave as ideology,” mass media feeds moral panic and mass hysteria. 

For a recent look at this, see James Walsh (2020). He writes, “Contra claims of their empowering and deflationary consequences, [investigation into this matter] finds that, on balance, recent technological transformations unleash and intensify collective alarm. Whether generating fear about social change, sharpening social distance, or offering new opportunities for vilifying outsiders, distorting communications, manipulating public opinion, and mobilizing embittered individuals, digital platforms and communications constitute significant targets, facilitators, and instruments of panic production” (from the abstract, which is found here. See also conclusion).” 

Mass media coverage is not only more abundant, but highly selective. A good example of this is the myth that mass shootings are mostly the work of white men. This myth developed rather rapidly, and knowledge of its appearance expressed even by mainstream media outlets. Before Black Lives Matter, prominent publications such as The New York Times and The Guardian discussed the problem of excluding black victims of mass shootings by not counting mass shootings by black perpetrators in the context of inner-city violence (see, e.g., Beckett 2016). 

Indeed, to make it appear as if white men represent most perpetrators of mass shootings, most mass shooting must be excluded from the statistics. What is the definition of a mass shooting? It varies, but it is generally defined as a single incident in which four or more people are shot or killed. In 2020, according to this definition, mass shootings disproportionately occurred in majority-black neighborhoods perpetrated by members of those communities. It is crucial to note that most murder victims are black. Using data tabulated by Statista, of the 17,754 homicides 2020, 9,913 were black. In other words, most (56 percent) of homicides in America were black.

These numbers are startling when considering that most black homicide victims are male and black males comprise only around six percent of the US population. When I tell people these statistics, they admit that they never heard them. This is partly because media coverage does not accurately represent the demographic patterns of homicide in America. A study published in the journal Sociology of Race and Ethnicity about 2016 shooting victims in Chicago found that black people killed in predominantly black neighborhoods received roughly half as much news coverage as white people killed in majority-white neighborhoods (White, Stuart, and Morrissey 2020).

The consequences of selective coverage of crime and control in America leads to distortions of popular consciousness. George Floyd’s death by suffocation at the hands of Minneapolis police officers is known worldwide. The nation watched the trial or awaited the verdict. A white police officer was convicted of murder in that case. However, Tony Timpa’s suffocation death at the hands of Dallas police officers is known to a much smaller number of people. Timpa was a white man. Similarities in the two cases are striking. Selective coverage manufactures the appearance that more unarmed black men are killed by the police than unarmed white men. In fact, it is the other way around. Both Floyd and Timpa were unarmed when police officers killed them. No officers were charged in Timpa’s death. The city of Dalla paid no settlement to Timpa’s family. A judge tossed an excessive force lawsuit against the officers. On what grounds? Qualified immunity. Tony Timpa’s death is largely forgotten. And he is hardly the only one. (See McWhorter, 2020.)

The appearance does something else. Presenting excessive policing as a problem primarily for black America mentally circumscribes the perceived scope of excessive use of force by the police to racist acts against black Americans, and thus keeps whites from knowing the full extent of the police violence affecting the white community (while painting for blacks a bleak and fear-provoking picture that circumscribes their movements in society). To the extent that whites are racist, and let’s assume at least some are, they care less about the risk of excessive force by the police visited upon nonwhites. If they believe excessive force will not be visited upon themselves or upon their friends and relatives, they may have less empathy for those they believe do suffer such excesses. This works against what those of who are concerned about reforming policing in American are trying to accomplish.

Words Cited

Barlow, Melissa, David E. Barlow, and Ted G. Chiricos. 1995. Economic Conditions and Ideologies of Crime in the Media: A Content Analysis of Crime News. Crime and Delinquency 41(1):3-19.

Beckett, Lois. 2016. Most Victims of US mass shootings are black, data analysis finds. The Guardian. May 23. 

Cesario, Joseph, David J. Johnson, and William Terrill. 2018. Is There Evidence of Racial Disparity in Police Use of Deadly Force? Analyses of Officer-Involved Fatal Shootings in 2015–2016. Social Psychological and Personality Science 10(5). 

Chiricos, Ted G., Kathy Padgett, and Marc Gertz. 2000. Fear, TV News, and the Reality of Crime. Criminology 38(3):755-786.

Chiricos, Ted G. 1998. Media, Moral Panics and the Politics of Crime Control. Pp 58-75 in Criminal Justice System: Politics and Policies, Seventh Edition, George F. Cole and Marc G. Gertz, eds. Wadsworth.

Goode, Erich. 1994. Moral Panics: Culture, Politics, and Social Construction. Annual Review of Sociology 20:149-171.

Fishman, Mark. 1978. Crime Waves as Ideology. Social Problems 25(5): 531-543

Fryer, Roland G. 2019. An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force. Journal of Political Economy 127(3).

King, Angela. 2021. Seattle gun violence surges in 2021, as police force dwindles. National Public Radio. August 31.

Mac Donald, Heather. 2016. The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe. Encounter Books.

McWhorter, John. 2020. Racist Police Violence Reconsidered. Quillette. June.

Sampson, Robert J. and Janet L. Lauritsen. 1997. Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Crime and Criminal Justice in the United States. Crime and Justice 21: 311-374.

Sampson, Robert J. an Stephen Raudenbush. 1999. Systematic Social Observation of Public Spaces: A New Look at Disorder in Urban Neighborhoods. American Journal of Sociology 105 (3): 603–51.

Sheldon, Randall G. and Pavel V. Vasiliev 2018. Controlling the Dangerous Classes: A History of Criminal Justice in America, Third Edition. Waveland.

Tregle, Brandon, Justin Nix, and Geoffrey Albert. 2018. Disparity does not mean bias: making sense of observed racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings with multiple benchmarks. Journal of Crime and Justice. 42(6). 

Trumm, Doug. 2020. Seattle City Council Passes 2021 Budget with 18% Cut to Police Department. The Urbanist, November 24.

Walker, Samuel and Carol Archbold. 2019. The New World of Police Accountability, Third Edition. Sage.

Walker, Samuel. Governing the American Police: Wrestling with the Problems of Democracy. 2016. The University of Chicago Legal Forum 2016(1): 615-660.  

Walsh, James P. 2020. Social media and moral panics: Assessing the effects of technological change on societal reaction. International Journal of Cultural Studies. March. 

Westneat, Danny. 2021. “Don’t have a clue: It turns out Washington state set a murder record in 2020, but no one knows why. The Seattle Times, July 10. 

White, Kailey, Forrest Stuart, and Shannon L. Morrissey. 2020. Whose Lives Matter? Race, Space, and the Devaluation of Homicide Victims in Minority Communities. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity. September. 

Wilbanks, William. 1987. The Myth of a Racist Criminal Justice System. Brooks/Cole.

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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.

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