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Don't blame police for homicide rate

In a recent commentary in The Sun ("Civil rights safeguards in jeopardy," May 1), Cornell William Brooks, the president of the NAACP, condemns what he alleges to be abdication of the federal government's duty to pursue civil rights violations. In so doing, he exaggerates the extent of such violations and the role of the police in them. Most outrageously, he declares that "young black males are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than young white males." Mr. Brooks has either confused the ratios relating to black youth deaths by all homicides (21 to 1) with those relating to black homicide deaths at the hands of policemen (5 to 1), or has relied on a discredited study cherry-picking data from an FBI database disavowed by the agency that issued it and containing only a small fraction of the killings by police identified in newspaper investigations.

There have been several prize-winning journalistic investigations of killings by police, including those conducted by The Washington Post and Britain's Guardian newspaper. One such study alleges that throughout the nation, 465 whites and 233 blacks were killed by police in 2016. Another counts a total of 1,140 killings by police in 2015. Per million population of each group, the number of deaths from this cause was 2.9 among whites, 7.1 among blacks, and 3.5 among Latinos, or a disparity not of 21 to 1 but of 2.5 to 1. Among victims between the ages of 15 and 24, the Guardian reported a black police homicide death rate that was five times the white rate, not 21 times it. (In 2015, the nation's 1 million law enforcement officers were victims of as many as 129 homicides, a death rate nearly 10 times as great as that ascribed by the Guardian to young blacks victimized by the police).

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In many large cities, including Baltimore, police are confronted not by isolated eccentrics, but by well-armed gangs engaged in the drug trade which inspire fear that out-numbered individual offenders do not. There are doubtless some officers who value black lives cheaply, but in a city like Baltimore with a police force that is 43 percent black, this is not the road to professional success.

Against the 233 deaths of blacks perpetrated by all the nation's police forces combined in 2015, such police forces numbering more than a million, may be set the 344 homicides committed in Baltimore City alone in 2015, the overwhelming number of them involving both black victims and black perpetrators. The number of Baltimore homicide victims in that year of "consciousness-raising" by Black Lives Matter and its entourage of supportive foundations, newspaper editors and civil rights officials was 148 victims higher than the 196 Baltimore homicide victims recorded in 2011 during the alleged dark age of more intensive policing under the regime of Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld III. Mr. Brooks' claim that a police department more focused on the fostering of "trusting relationships" will reduce homicides is a nice theory with limited empirical support, especially in Baltimore. Nor will the consent decree he supports improve these numbers since on grounds of "disparate impact," it seeks to reduce misdemeanor arrests in high-crime areas.

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So long as "gangster government" prevails in large areas of Baltimore, there will be homicides. The reluctance of citizens to cooperate is not founded on the unkindness of the police, but on fear of the gangsters who seek both economic advancement and social affiliation in the drug trade.

The narrative of discrimination that comes so easily to the lips of Mr. Brooks and his organization has obvious historical roots in the glory days of the Southern civil rights movement. But as long ago as 1964, its inadequacy and limitations were perceived. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that "Its provisions were designed for the Negroes of the South. . . to the frustrations in the black ghettoes of the cities it offered nothing. [They continued to] seek identity in crime or surcease in a drug or a fix . [This] contained the potentialities of rending and destroying the fabric of American society."

President Lyndon Johnson's efforts to address the underlying problem of socializing the young, some wise and some not, fell victim to the fiscal constraints imposed by the Vietnam War and attendant inflation. President Richard Nixon's war on drugs, the product of a political bidding war among Robert Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller and Mr. Nixon made matters immeasurably worse by making prisons and jails the schools for a large portion of a generation. President Nixon rejected the unanimous 1972 recommendation of his National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse in favor of decriminalization of marijuana. The war on drugs was intensified during Bill Clinton's tenure. The legislation celebrated by Mr. Brooks allowing injunctions against local police departments also included numerous mandatory minimum penalties. Cowardly politicians, Democratic as well as Republican (Baltimore's former Mayor Kurt Schmoke is one of the few exceptions), have perpetuated Presidents Nixon's and Clinton's misjudgments and Mr. Brooks has not deviated from this pattern.

Inspection of the national website of Mr. Brooks' organization reveals no calls for the youth employment programs tentatively embarked upon by the Johnson administration and more successfully pursued by Franklin Roosevelt, whose repeal of prohibition vastly reduced the gangsterism that culminated in the St. Valentine's Day massacre and whose CCC and NYA employed millions, most of them initially subjected to discipline in army camps organized by General George C. Marshall. Nor has the NAACP supported (except recently in California) the establishment of legal channels of distribution for marijuana to defund the drug trade. Instead, it seeks opportunistic alliances with groups agitating for a closed shop in K-12 education, sexual license and uncontrolled immigration, a cause not supported by civil rights leaders of an earlier era like Rep. Barbara Jordan. The coalition the NAACP avoids is one supporting the unemployed youth of the Rust Belt, northern New England, and the Great Plains, whose cause is not fashionable even though what were once the problems of the inner cities have become the problems of the nation. What it does support is federal control for the sake of federal control, scapegoating and the accompanying cultivation of a politics of hatred. This is not a useful contribution to the civic life of Baltimore.

George W. Liebmann, Baltimore

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