photo: Sofie Hecht, Gotham Gazette
The Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald has a new book out Tuesday that claims that there is a “War on Cops,” led by the Black Lives Matter movement and anyone else who ever called for reductions in excessive, heavy-handed, or brutal policing.
Mac Donald’s basic point is that the police merely take action in response to actual levels of crime and disorder and that by doing so they save lives. Anyone who accuses them of racist motivations or outcomes misses the fact that the majority of the lives they save are those of young men of color, she says, since they are so frequently the victims of criminal violence. According to Mac Donald, “there is no New York City institution more dedicated to the proposition that ‘black lives matter’ than the New York Police Department.”
She also maintains that when people criticize the police, they undermine the ability of officers to take the kinds of proactive actions needed to do this work, making all of us less safe. This is a rehashing of the so called “Ferguson Effect,” which Mac Donald has espoused and I and others have painstakingly debunked. For instance, crime in New York City has continued to go down, even when police went on a two-week strike last year and even after a now years-long radical reduction in “stop and frisk” encounters, which Mac Donald so vehemently defended in the past.
The “Ferguson Effect” is based on a logic that when police are told to stop killing people and behaving in an unlawful manner, they become incapable of doing their jobs. This is both an insult to police officers and leaves no room for people to raise very real and valid concerns about heavy-handed, racially-biased, and at times corrupt and brutal policing. As I asked once before, if I call to complain about broken swings in the playground, does that make me anti-parks? Or, if I complain that my trash didn’t get picked up, does that make me anti-sanitation? There are hundreds of thousands of police who understand and sympathize with many of the criticisms being raised, and to accuse them of shirking their responsibilities as a result suggests that Mac Donald holds a very dim view of the professional ethics of American police while she attempts to be one of their biggest champions.
In an excerpt of the book published in the New York Post, she accuses me of being out of touch with the desire of poor and non-white New Yorkers to live in neighborhoods free of crime and disorder. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even a cursory reading of my book City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics, would reveal that I spent years doing fieldwork in just such neighborhoods. I found that people are indeed very concerned about disorder, and that politicians who ignore this do so at their own peril.
But I also went deeper than Mac Donald’s knee jerk neoconservatism. People in these neighborhoods only turned to police for help when all other avenues for assistance were closed off to them. From East New York, Brooklyn to the East Village in Manhattan, New Yorkers told me they wanted disorder dealt with through affordable housing, adequate mental health care services, drug treatment on demand, and after-school programs and stable employment for youth. It is only when austerity politics, supported by Mac Donald and the Manhattan Institute, made these things unattainable that people called for police-led responses.
Over the years I have attended many community meetings where people have demanded more aggressive police actions. I frequently bring my students with me to see the dilemmas facing communities, though many of them are well aware from first-hand experience. Most people in these meetings are deeply frustrated, and rightfully so. The decades of urban disinvestment and tax cutting mania have left them with declining living standards and in many cases a degraded quality of life—or displacement by the forces of gentrification. In my experience many of them are torn between having to rely on police to solve their community problems and knowing that this means putting more young people from the community in jail and prison. What people really want for their communities and their neighbors are resources and opportunities.
Mac Donald argues that there is nothing racist about the fact that the vast majority of people arrested and cited as part of “Broken Windows” policing are not white, because the police are only taking enforcement action where the crime is. She claims that Eric Garner, for instance, was targeted because it is only in communities of color that people sell illegal cigarettes. All I can say is that she’s never spent any time in the working class white neighborhoods of Brooklyn, where the illegal sale of untaxed cigarettes is rampant. She also clearly never hangs out in areas like Park Slope, Chelsea, and the Upper West Side where marijuana usage is widespread but enforcement near zero. Research conducted by Queens College’s Harry Levine shows that even when economic class is factored in, neighborhoods that have more non-whites experience dramatically higher enforcement rates than white ones.
If anything, it’s Mac Donald who is horribly out of touch. By supporting neverending budget cuts for every service but the police, she is oblivious to the dire consequences of grinding millions of young, poor, and disabled people through a criminal justice systems that mostly just makes their lives worse, and in cases like Kalief Browder and Eric Garner, results in their death. She should come and spend a day with my hard-working students at Brooklyn College and hear their stories of abuse, criminalization, and heartbreak that result from the NYPD’s war on disorder before she claims that the solution to every urban ill is more policing.
Alex S. Vitale is associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. He is on Twitter @avitale.