Examining the Conservative Defense of Police Shootings

Is most police behavior fine, dandy, and racism-free? And what does it mean if it is?

Photo: Tony Webster

As horror over police shootings has grown nationwide over the past year, some sympathy for the goals of Black Lives Matter protesters has come from the right as well as the left. Jeb Bush gave the issue minor lip service in August, and Mr. Rod Dreher of The American Conservative has voiced outrage over the killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland. In fact, it is understandable why the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police might worry conservatives: their ostensible principles of limited government and individual rights are somewhat undermined by a state of affairs in which the government can shoot a person to death for no reason at all.

But according to Mr. David French of the National Review, the true conservative position on this is that the problems cited by black citizens are not problems at all. Police are doing their jobs well overall, and a mountain is being made out of a molehill. Thus a clear-eyed examination of the facts “should defuse national tensions,” but unfortunately a “false narrative” is fueling a misguided social movement.

First, it is important to understand what this position assumes: that the majority of blacks who do not have confidence in the police cannot hold their beliefs because of their own experiences. Instead they are being, as French puts it, “taught to hate and fear law enforcement, fed on a steady diet of lies about their own country.” The 3 out of 5 black people who report that they have personally been treated unfairly by police must not understand that they were, in fact, treated fairly. Anyone who wishes to argue that there is no widespread race problem in policing must necessarily discount everything said by most black people about the behavior they have witnessed firsthand.

But perhaps it is true that millions of black people are simply being tricked into believing that they have had bad experiences with police. Mr. French believes that the statistics, properly examined, reveal that this must be the case. As he explains, the evidence will show that while policing may have its occasional deadly mishaps and whoops-a-daisies, on the whole it is not worthy of serious complaint:

The conservative response is clear: While no one believes the police are perfect, on the whole they tend to use force appropriately to protect their own lives and the lives of others. 

Now, first, the limits of French’s contention should be carefully noted. It is easy to let a sentence like the above go by without observing the tiny sleight-of-hand buried within. Here, we should notice something quite important: the proposition French will attempt to defend is not, in fact, inconsistent with the case made by Black Lives Matter. French says conservatives believe police “tend” to use force appropriately. But this verb should raise an enormous skeptical eyebrow. For police could indeed tend to use force appropriately, while nevertheless using force inappropriately at very high rates. If I say “I tend to follow the law,” I might still disregard the law about 30% of the time. What if I say of someone “Oh, don’t worry, he tends not to murder people”? Should you be concerned about being murdered by this person?

This is terribly important. It goes beyond the simple choice of particular verbs; it is something to watch out for whenever a statistical argument is being made, and it matters especially where we are assessing the taking of life. For if I say “95% of police use of force is justified,” that sounds like an excellent record. But even if we know that number to be accurate, it is nevertheless not nearly as definitive as it appears to be. For what about the remaining 5%? Five percent is one-in-twenty. If the five percent was murder, the fact that 95% of police activities were not murder wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference. It would be as if a serial killer defended himself by saying “Well, it’s a bit unfair for you to point out all the murders I have committed, without paying any attention whatsoever to the many I haven’t committed. 95% of the women I meet, I don’t try to kill, and only a minuscule fraction of my day is devoted to murdering. When you look at my life’s activities on the whole, I really do tend not to murder people much at all.” (Incidentally, this is what Planned Parenthood’s “our activities are only 3% abortion” sounds like to conservative ears, which is why it’s a silly defense to make.)

But Mr. French strongly believes that by showing that most police shootings are not cold-blooded murders of unarmed black men, he has proven something. As he says, the police are “generally responsible,” and

[t]he kinds of shootings that launched the Black Lives Matter movement — white police officers killing unarmed black men — represent “less than 4 percent of fatal police shootings.”

Mr. French says that the Washington Post has been trying to “hype the racial injustice of this statistic” by pointing out that unarmed black men are much more likely to get shot than members of other demographic groups. This is where he gives us the thrust of his defense: to the extent that racial disparities exist, they exist because black people commit more crimes than white people do. He argues that black people only get shot so much because they commit so many crimes. If they committed fewer crimes, then perhaps they’d get shot less.

But this assumes something utterly unwarranted, namely that the people who have been killed were criminals. In support of this, French cites evidence that 564 out of the 965 people killed by police in 2015 were “armed with a gun.” But the entire meaning of the Second Amendment is that having a gun is no crime. One can stroll down the street with one’s AR-15 if one so pleases, and that is simply the beauty of freedom. Thanks to the Constitution, saying the victim was “armed with a gun” is no different to saying the victim was “wearing a hat.” Perfectly lawful, the relevant question is whether the police had good reason to believe the person was posing a threat.

Of course, this also leaves us with several hundred killings of unarmed people. But here, again, Mr. French tells us that crime rates resolve the question. It’s a bizarre way to defend killing, though. It assumes that if someone has committed a crime, it is acceptable to put them to death without trial. In fact, it is worth asking: what if the unarmed black men being killed are often criminals? (in the non-technical sense, since legally they are innocent until proven guilty) They can be killed, even if they pose no threat? The “conservative case” made by Mr. French does away with every single requirement of due process.

In fact, we know many of those who are killed are criminals. Eric Garner, who was choked to death in New York, was a criminal: he had sold loose cigarettes without paying his taxes. Statistically, blacks probably do this more often than whites do (partially because selling cigarettes on the street is something done mostly by poorer people, and black people are disproportionately poorer than white people), thus more black people will be choked to death. Have we justified anything by proving this?

The same is true with Walter Scott, the South Carolina man shot in the back as he ran from police. He was committing a crime as he was shot: he fled arrest! But if flight warranted death, Affluenza-boy could simply have had a bullet put in him the moment he was pulled from a Mexican apartment block.

So of course a lot of the victims are going to have committed crimes. When police shot a 19-year-old man and a 55-year-old mother in Chicago last weekend, they were aiming to shoot a criminal: the teenager had been having a violent tantrum, and that was the entire reason the police were called. So, too, Lacquan McDonald, who had slashed a police car’s tires and allegedly committed burglary. And Tamir Rice shouldn’t have been waving an AirSoft gun in the direction of people! The entire point here is that these shootings are disproportionate to whatever has gone on and whatever crime might have been committed.

“Ah,” French might say, “but you have conceded my case. There’s no racism here! If, say, police murder 1% of all those suspected of committing crimes, and 70% of those who commit crimes are black, then there will of course be racial disparities in the underlying numbers.”

But the argument is pitiful: “It might be true that police murder quite a few unarmed black men, but this is acceptable because these unarmed black men were thought to have engaged in crimes. And they were murdered because of that, rather than their race.” We can call this the “Hey, I may be a murderer, but I’m no racist” defense. All it suggests is that police brutality as a whole is deeper than simply being racism. A Marxist might say something similar.

There’s something worth appreciating about the theory that the violence is more widespread than race alone would tell us. Being accused of a crime is a highly relevant factor: when police beat (white) homeless man Kelly Thomas to death, they apparently thought he had been vandalizing cars. When police intentionally had (white) Jared Lemay mauled by a dog, he had been violating his probation. It may indeed be that where violence is concerned, police simply dish it out mercilessly to whoever they are after, and they happen to be after black men more.

But it’s also true that the statistics don’t disprove the existence of a racist criminal justice system. After all, one can only prove that a person has committed a crime (and thus measure the race of criminals) if the person is convicted of a crime. But if black people are more likely to be arrested for committing the same crime as a white person, and then more likely to be convicted, then we are not factoring unconvicted white criminals into our crime rate analysis. Pointing out that black people are convicted more than white people in addition to being shot more is completely consistent with a theory that every part of the criminal justice system is shot through with racism. Mr. French apparently hasn’t had a look at The New Jim Crow, and doesn’t realize that reformers’ entire argument is that black people are being convicted of crimes in outrageous numbers, while ordinary criminals such as congresspeople get neither shot nor convicted!

That’s not to dispute that homicides by and against black people are higher than those by and against white people. Black people know this better than anyone and are constantly attempting to draw attention to it, not that the National Review cares much about these things when they’re not trying to score a point against protesters. But instead of seeing this as a social problem in need of repair, Mr. French sees it as warrant for the police to kill the alleged perpetrators before they even go to trial.

The “conservative case” against Black Lives Matter, then, is founded on multiple ignorant premises. The first is that somehow, by showing that most police behavior is acceptable, we have proven that shootings are not occurring at unacceptable rates. This is a hideous irrational non sequitur that in a just world would result in the revocation of Mr. French’s bar license. The second is that it’s acceptable to murder unarmed black people so long as the rate of killing increases in direct proportion with the number of crimes they commit. The third is that the people being killed are criminals, which they aren’t, since dead men don’t go to trial. The fourth is that once someone is a criminal, any level of force whatsoever is acceptable to be used against them. The fifth is that the Second Amendment doesn’t exist. The sixth is that racism doesn’t affect the number of criminal convictions. And the seventh is that black people are totally delusional about their own first-person memories.

The conservative case on Black Lives Matter ought to be that if small government means anything, it means not being shot in the head by the government, without so much as an arraignment. But for David French, as for many others, the definition of “conservatism” often simply amounts to a defense of the use of violence by the powerful, with all the highfalutin rights-talk being mostly a sham. If Mr. French’s argument is the conservative case, black people should be fearful indeed of conservative justice.

Author: Nathan J. Robinson

is the editor of Current Affairs.