Inspired by the same New York Times report that I criticized last week, the Washington Post’s Max Ehrenfreund tries to find out if violent crime really has been increasing this summer, as some the police reform movement’s most high-profile critics have recently claimed. Obviously, an uptick in crime won’t prove that the so-called Ferguson effect is real, and that cops don’t feel empowered to protect and serve. But if the alleged crime wave is just a figment of some people’s imaginations, we could at least stop fretting about the return of “the bad old days.”
And what is Ehrenfreund’s verdict? Well, if you think it’s a false choice to pit African-Americans’ civil rights against safety, the news is good. If you’re inclined to take “tough on crime” extremists like Chris Christie or Ray Kelly seriously, however, it’s likely you won’t appreciate his reporting quite so much. Ehrenfreund finds no evidence that crime is rising. The rest of us, meanwhile, get a reminder of how low some elites will sink to kill Black Lives Matter — and the larger movement for police reform.
“Overall,” Ehrenfreund writes, “things haven't changed much from the past several years, at least judging by the number of homicides committed in major cities.” He says that “most cities are still far safer than they were two decades ago,” and notes that while Baltimore, St. Louis and Milwaukee have seen a “deeply worrisome” increase in homicides, “current trends” would have the number of homicides in the 10 largest U.S. cities below the figures for 2012 and “any previous year since at least 1985.”
Despite the country’s newfound interest in preserving black people’s lives, it would seem, we have not yet descended into a total state of anarchy. True, now that the NYPD no longer manufactures nearly 700,000 stops in a year, Gov. Christie may very well feel “less safe” in New York, as he claimed Tuesday on “Morning Joe.” But Christie is currently at the head of an underperforming presidential campaign. And if the presidential wannabe is mistaking the neuroses of New Hampshirites for his own currently, he wouldn’t be the first.
Ray Kelly, on the other hand, is a different story. The former commissioner — who took the already overbearing police apparatus Bill Bratton handed to him and proceeded to crank it to 11 — is not running for office, at least not in the immediate future. Somewhat remarkably, his motivations are even grubbier than that: He’s selling a book. A “vital memoir,” according to his publisher, that “reveals the inside stories” and “offers his insights” for a nation with a “need for vigilance” that is “as acute as ever.” (Sportswriter Mike Lupica and George W. Bush Press Secretary Dana Perino say it’s a must-read!)
And thus are we treated to the spectacle of Kelly sounding-off in the New York Times, telling anyone who’ll listen that the blame for the uptick in homicides this summer must be laid at Mayor Bill de Blasio’s feet. He can’t substantiate the claim, of course. But the characteristic feature of Kelly’s approach isn’t following the data. “[Y]ou can’t measure the amount of crime that wasn’t committed” because of his policies, he argues at one point. It’s an elegant tautology. Of course, he prefers to call it “only common sense.”
Notwithstanding the blasé machismo of intransigents like Christie and Kelly, finding the right balance between safety and civil liberties is not particularly easy. On the contrary, it is exceptionally hard. But although that truism is frequently repeated we’re talking about counter-terrorism, when the equation puts absolute safety on one side and the rights of black people on the other, striking the right balance is suddenly a no-brainer. Echoing his former boss Michael Bloomberg, Kelly argues that if there was a problem with stop-and-frisk, it was that the NYPD was “understopping African-Americans.”
So even though I’m grateful for Ehrenfreund’s report and hope we see more like it, when he describes interest in the now-debunked crime wave as evidence of Americans caring about “violence in the inner city,” I have to disagree slightly. It’s proof that many of us, including some would-be presidents, believe an overweening police state is needed to control violence in poor African-American communities. But that’s a longstanding belief of the American mainstream. It’s not progress.