Given how many words have been written about the Black Lives Matter movement, it is remarkable how rarely BLM’s actual effects on society have been empirically measured.
Leaving aside questions about BLM’s suspicious finances and organizational structure, there are two obvious questions to ask about the anti-policing movement. First, has it worked? That’s to say, has BLM advocacy for undoing what was presented as a plague of unjustified police shootings reduced the rate at which U.S. citizens are shot by police—or, for that matter, reduced crime overall as trust in police officers has increased? Second, whatever the answer to the first question, what does improve police performance? In other words, are there police departments whose officers kill or shoot notably fewer civilians than apparent peers, and are there variables that explain why?
The first question has received some attention in the popular press merely because reporting on crime statistics is a long-standing journalistic practice. And the answer seems simply to be no. There is little if any evidence that rates of police shootings of citizens have declined since the 2014–15 beginning of the BLM movement. According to an excellent database maintained by the Washington Post, 994 people were fatally shot by American police officers in 2015, 958 in 2016, 981 in 2017, 983 in 2018, 999 in 2019, 1,020 in 2020. Not only are these differences obviously not statistically significant, the rate of police-citizen violence actually increased slightly in recent years.
Police shootings of black Americans followed essentially the same year-by-year pattern, with 258 in 2015, 236 in 2016, 222 in 2017, 228 in 2018, 251 in 2019, and 243 in 2020. So did cop shootings of unarmed individuals, with 95 fatal shootings of an unarmed individual taking place in the somewhat atypical year of 2015—but with 64 in 2016, 71 in 2017, 58 in 2018, 54 in 2019, and 60 in 2020. In 2021, there was a dip in shootings of unarmed (32) and black (177) individuals. It remains to be seen, however, whether this is the beginning of a pattern: As of this writing, police have shot at least 20 unarmed people since the start of 2022. Overall, perhaps the most striking thing about these numbers is how low and consistent most of them have been throughout the period under analysis. In 2016, the total number of unarmed black men shot by police was 20. In 2020, it was 18.
Meanwhile, overall crime has soared through the roof during the BLM era. From a base of 14,164 in 2014, murders increased to 17,294 by 2017 and—after a small two-year drop in 2018 and 2019—surged to more than 20,000 in 2020. That year, the United States posted its highest annual murder total since 1995 and experienced roughly 4,000 more murders than the year before. According to Jason Johnson, researcher and president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, New York City alone “added more than 100 additional homicides” in 2020 and saw a one-year increase of 58 percent in the murder rate. In Chicago, murders increased 65 percent. In nearby St. Louis, the murder rate reached a 50-year high and a level of 87 annual murders per 100,000 residents—a rate of homicide roughly 45 percent higher than that in El Salvador.
Johnson attributes (as we do) rising crime to the BLM-affiliated Defund the Police and Police Pullback movements, noting that deadly violence in America’s major cities rose “as engaged policing fell.” Cities that slashed policing budgets, says Johnson, “often saw the largest drop in active policing and…increases in homicide.” The data largely support this position: The homicide surge in New York City, in particular, followed a decrease in police stops and a remarkable 38 percent decline in officer-initiated arrests. From June to December 2020, the NYPD logged 45,000 fewer arrests than it had from June to December 2019.
The same was true in other major metropolitan areas. In Chicago, arrests declined by 53 percent, an even steeper drop than in New York, while in the Kentucky metroplex of Louisville, police stops declined by 35 percent and arrests dropped by 42 percent. The pattern here is not novel. During an earlier wave of BLM activism, a memorable 2016 headline on the Chicago page of the DNAinfo news site read: “Police Stops Down by 90 Percent as Gun Violence Skyrockets.” More broadly, Mona Charen and others have argued that the remarkable surge in U.S. violent crime between 1963 and 1993 (when murders increased from roughly 8,600 to 24,500) can be attributed almost entirely to policies such as more lenient criminal sentencing and the down-road effects of the Miranda and Escobedo cases, which mandated enhanced rights for accused criminals.
Barely any scholarly ink has been devoted to our cause-defining second question: What does improve police performance? According to a review led by Robert Maranto prior to May 2022, exactly one of the 25 most widely cited academic articles dealing with the Black Lives Matter movement has examined “specific ways to reduce the taking of black lives by police or others.” Many more deal with trendy post-modern topics unrelated to the movement’s core goals. One representative article, published by the Institute of Public Relations, is titled “Challenging the Dialogic Promise: How Ben and Jerry’s Support for BLM Fosters Dissensus on Social Media.” Producing this sort of thing might be genuinely useful in helping junior academics obtain tenure and grants, but it is extraordinarily unlikely to save lives, black or otherwise. In the real world, the plain fact is that some police officers and departments do a great job of keeping citizens safe from crime—and free from unnecessary custodial violence—while others do not.
Given the dearth of this important research, the three of us decided to focus our attention directly on the matter of successful policing and the additional, seemingly taboo questions that it raises for BLM: Which U.S. police departments are currently doing well, and what quantifiable factors predict good police performance?1
Our basic technique has been to analyze where and how good policing happens, ranking police departments in the U.S.’s 50 largest cities based on (1) their performance at keeping homicide rates low and (2) their ability to avoid shootings of civilians. This was done after a city-by-city adjustment for poverty rates, because poorer neighborhoods and cities almost invariably have higher rates of crime than other areas and are more difficult to effectively police.
Much of what we found was positive. Many police departments do excellent work. The top 15 departments in terms of what we call our Police Professionalism Index (PPI) score included Boston; Mesa, Arizona; Raleigh, North Carolina; Virginia Beach; five California cities including San Diego and San Jose; and five Texas cities including El Paso and Austin. And interestingly, during a study period beginning in 2015 and largely taking place before recent police pullbacks, the much maligned New York City Police Department proved to be the highest-performing large department in the United States. In an average year, NYPD officers kill fewer than ten citizens, about one-half the national average on a per-capita basis. Moreover, the popular image of the Big Apple as a high-crime Gomorrah is simply wrong. New York City was, until very recently, one of the least violent big cities in the country, posting the sixth-lowest homicide rate in 2019.
What accounts for high-quality urban policing? Distinct trackable variables, which curious people can readily measure. While it might seem obvious, most departments that perform well in terms of not shooting civilians dedicate time and energy to teaching nonlethal combat and the use of nonlethal weapons such as tasers. In New York City—in what appears to be a largely untold success story—this was the primary policy responsible for a 90 percent reduction in annual civilian death numbers over the past 50 years. Most high-quality police departments also tend to get very good at tracking data in real time, using tools such as COMPSTAT to observe when and where crimes happen, and then sending action-ready officers directly into these identified “hot zones.”
On an individual-department basis, specifically designated powers also help a given leadership team improve policing. NYPD commissioners, in particular, have long had an unusual level of internal power that almost any boss would envy. This includes the ability to fire any precinct commander for unsatisfactory performance, bust down in rank any unsatisfactory commander and thus dramatically reduce his or her retirement pension. In other words, any commissioner can force recalcitrant or holdover members of departmental middle and upper management out of their jobs and then hand-pick all their replacements. This power has not, historically, gone unused. During just two turbulent years in the 1990s, legendary New York City Commissioner William Bratton fired or “retired” almost 66 percent of his commanders, allowing a complete makeover of departmental culture.
Another factor in good policing is the presence of a professional internal-affairs unit to investigate police misconduct, as chronicled by the NYPD’s long-time Internal Affairs Bureau Director Charles Campisi in his Blue on Blue. While often stereotyped in police culture as the “snakes” or the “head-hunters,” such units play a genuinely important role by investigating problem officers and recommending termination—or at least placement in unpopular weapons-free posts like the motor pool—for genuine rogues. It is no exaggeration to say that more focus on officer quality by the police brass in Minneapolis would have kept George Floyd alive and therefore saved the lives of many others who were killed in the riots of 2020. Prior to his involvement in the killing of Floyd, former officer Derrick Chauvin had faced no fewer than 18 civilian complaints and been involved in three earlier shootings. While little if any evidence indicates that Chauvin was a racist or even that he planned to kill Floyd, it’s more than fair to say that this man should probably not have been out leading street patrols.
Even paperwork, the bane of every civil servant’s life, plays a role in the improvement of policing. An amusing finding from one of the rare works of social science that does study how to reduce police shootings was that simply requiring officers to file a lengthy paper-copy report every time they draw (not fire) their duty weapons tends to reduce police-involved shootings. While we would likely make few friends in the force for suggesting it, this seems like a policy that could be adopted widely and quickly for very little cost.
So then: What do bad departments do? The simple but accurate answer is: almost the exact opposite of what good ones do. The poorly performing departments in our study were largely forces based in diverse regional cities—Kansas City, Albuquerque, Tulsa, and Louisville—that were grappling with internal political problems. In few of these cities did mayors or police chiefs appear to be pushing hard to copy the lead of cities in the top 10 in terms of officer recruitment, officer training, or accountability. The single worst-performing city in our entire sample was Baltimore (PPI Score = 2.84/10), where the homicide rate of 56.12/100,000 is roughly 15 times that of New York, and where police kill 1,000 percent as many civilians per capita as New York cops do. Remarkably, even following the 2015 Freddie Gray killing and weeks of riots, Baltimore officials have adopted none of the police reforms of their larger neighbor, which is located less than three hours away by train. Let’s hope they do, because leadership matters.
The same is true of data. To that end, we suggest that the best way to assess the reforms and ideas pushed by Black Lives Matter is to consider them against a backdrop of hard numbers. If you do, you’ll find a record of failure that tragically undermines the movement’s chief goal of saving black lives. This explains why, until now, data-driven scholarship on the topic has been virtually nonexistent. For many in liberal-leaning academia, Black Lives Matter, as a passion and a cause, felt too just to fact-check. But this unquestioned sense of righteousness has come at a steep cost, and social scientists have abnegated their roles. Police departments across this great country certainly could do more to protect black—and all—lives, and scholars should help them do better.
1 In May, the authors published a lengthier examination of this issue titled “Which Police Departments Make Black Lives Matter, Which Don’t, and Why Don’t Most Social Scientists Care?” The paper is available at https://scholarworks.uark.edu/edrepub/136/.
Photo: Ivan Radic
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