The Star Tribune would have better served its readers and the community if its traffic stops cover story (“St. Paul records show black drivers stopped more often,” Dec. 15) had ventured further beyond the “cops are biased” narrative and explored the legitimate reasons for the disparity. This is especially the case considering that the country’s leading expert on this issue, scholar Heather Mac Donald, was in town this month meeting with the Star Tribune Editorial Board and community leaders, and speaking at a public forum attended by more than 400, including 150 cops.
At the forum Mac Donald discussed her research findings published in her book, “The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe.” Here’s the key message she delivered:
“The relevant benchmark for all policing activities is crime, not population. Policing today is data driven, the police go where people are being victimized and they go where the community is asking for help, and that means, unfortunately, given crime disparities in this country, policing is going to be heaviest in minority neighborhoods.
“Cops are being told by the media, by vast swaths of academia, and by the activists, that they are racists for engaging in pedestrian stops in minority neighborhoods or enforcing those low level public order offences known as “broken windows” policing, that that is racially oppressive. They are encountering this hatred and as a result they are doing less of that type of discretionary, proactive policing. They are running to 911 calls but there is a vast universe of discretionary policing that they don’t have to do between 911 calls and a lot of cops are deciding it’s not worth it.”
Mac Donald says we’ve been talking about a phantom problem of police racism and ignoring the more difficult and uncomfortable truth of greatly elevated rates of inner-city crime. High crime in minority neighborhoods leads to more police engagement and more encounters. Yet while 12 percent of all whites and Hispanics who die of homicide are killed by a cop, only 4 percent of black homicide victims are killed by a cop.
Everything the public thinks it knows about race, crime, policing, and shootings from the Black Lives Matter movement is exactly wrong.
Time after time the media and activists compare policing actions to population data instead of crime rates, and is silent on legitimate reasons for the disparities.
First, there is no magic principle guaranteeing that all racial groups speed, obey the law, or drive without a license or insurance at the same rates.
Second, because per-capita income for blacks in St. Paul is about 40 percent that of whites, on average blacks likely drive older cars in poorer repair that are more likely to be pulled over for equipment violations.
Third, age is another important factor, as young drivers are a higher risk to drive recklessly and violate traffic laws. In St. Paul, the black population is younger than the white population (which also explains part of the per-capita income difference).
Finally, and tragically, as FBI 2015 national stats show, blacks make up more than 50 percent of murder and robbery arrests, and account for 36 percent of all serious crime arrests, even though they are only 13 percent of the population. So it shouldn’t be considered unusual when blacks are detained as suspects or picked up for outstanding warrants at a high rate.
Police are human, under great stress, and desperate for more hands-on tactical training in “shoot-don’t shoot” decisions. And some may be biased. See, for example, South Carolina U.S. Sen. Tim Scott’s recent remarks on the Senate floor in which he described his experience being pulled over seven times in one year.
But the narrative that police are racist is taking a terrible toll on our communities. Supporting that narrative with simplistic statistics and off-base reasoning makes no more sense than saying police are sexist because 93 percent of Minnesota’s prison inmates are men.
Peter Zeller is director of operations at Center of the American Experiment.