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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Race, crime, and police: A closer look

Public Safety, Culture Policing, Crime Control, Culture & Society

For the last year, a protest movement known as Black Lives Matter has convulsed the nation. Triggered by the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the movement holds that the police are the greatest threat facing young black men today. In fact, there is no government agency more dedicated to the proposition that black lives matter than the police.

It goes without saying that law enforcement officers have an indefeasible obligation to treat everyone with courtesy and respect, and within the confines of the law. Every unjustified police shooting of an innocent, unarmed civilian is a stomach-churning tragedy. Given the appalling history of racism in America and the complicity of the police in that history, police shootings of black men are particularly and understandably fraught.

But there is larger reality behind the issue of policing, crime, and race that remains a taboo topic. Unless the problem of black-on-black crime is acknowledged, it is impossible to understand patterns of policing.

Every year, approximately 6,000 blacks are murdered. This is a number greater than white and Hispanic homicide victims combined, even though blacks are only 12 percent of the national population. Blacks of all ages are killed at six times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined.

That black death-by-homicide rate is a function of the black crime rate. The national rate of homicides committed by blacks is eight times that of whites and Hispanics combined. Black males between the ages of 14 and 17 commit homicide at 10 times the rate of white and Hispanic male teens combined.

The police could end all lethal uses of force tomorrow, both justified and unjustified, and it would have at most a trivial effect on the black death rate. According to the FBI, the police kill somewhat more than 400 people a year, one-third of them black. Some estimates put police killings at twice the FBI number, but the proportion of black shooting fatalities remains one-third. That is a rate lower than black crime rates would predict.

Homicide is not the only crime that is vastly racially disproportionate. New York City is representative of other crime spreading across the country. Blacks are 23 percent of New York's population, but they commit 75 percent of all shootings, 70 percent of all robberies, and 66 percent of all violent crime, according to the victims of, and witnesses to, those crimes.

Whites are 33 percent of the city's population, but they commit less than 2 percent of all shootings, 4 percent of all robberies, and 5 percent of all violent crime.

These disparities mean that virtually every time that the police in New York are called out after a shooting, they are being summoned to minority neighborhoods looking for minority suspects.

The victims of elevated urban crime are rarely commemorated. On March 11, as protesters were once again converging on the Ferguson police headquarters demanding the resignation of the entire department, a 6-year-old boy named Marcus Johnson was killed a few miles away in a St. Louis park, the victim of a stray bullet fired in a dispute. Three children under the age of 6 have been shot to death in Cleveland over the last month. A 9-year-old girl was hit by a stray bullet in Baltimore last weekend.

Crime rates were much higher 20 years ago, however. In New York City in 1990, for example, there were 2,262 homicides. Last year there were 333, a drop of 85 percent. New York's crime drop is the steepest in the nation, but crime has fallen at a historic rate nationwide as well - by about 40 percent - since the early 1990s.

The greatest beneficiaries of that crime drop have been minorities. More than 10,000 minority males are alive today in New York who would have been dead if the city's homicide rate had remained at its early 1990s levels.

This crime decrease is the result of a policing revolution that began in New York and spread nationally. Police now fanatically gather and analyze up-to-the-minute crime data and devise tactics accordingly. Top brass holds commanders accountable for crime on their watch. For decades, the rap against the police was that they ignored crime in minority neighborhoods. The policing revolution now keeps departments focused like a laser beam on where people are most being victimized, and that is in minority communities.

The other factor that determines where police are deployed is community demands for assistance and enforcement. Go to any police-community meeting in an urban area, and you will invariably hear some variant on the following requests: "We want the dealers off the corner." "There are kids hanging out on my stoop. Why can't you arrest them for loitering?" "I smell weed in my hallway. Can't you do something?"

The irony is that the police cannot respond to these heartfelt requests for order without generating the racially disproportionate statistics that will be used against them in an American Civil Liberties Union or Justice Department lawsuit.

By all means, we must do everything we can to make sure that police departments use force only as an absolute last resort. But as long as crime rates are so disproportionate, policing will be more intense in minority neighborhoods, increasing the chances that when an encounter goes awry, it will have a minority victim.

Nevertheless, proactive policing is the best government program yet devised to regenerate troubled urban neighborhoods and free their law-abiding residents from the thrall of fear and disorder.

This piece originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer