There is a popular narrative that “systemic” racism lies behind every police interaction with Black civilians in America. It’s wrong, and its impact is not only bad for Black communities—it is also very bad for American Jews. Unfortunately, it is a message that Jews nationwide are rallying behind, and has negatively affected how people think about race in academia, business, international relations, and beyond—making it more acceptable to discriminate against and assault Jews, who may eventually find fewer police officers around to protect them.
Videos and accounts of police violence and police misconduct are deeply disturbing, and there is no question that personal and cultural biases affect a number of officers within the ranks of our police departments. But we do a disservice to the goal of greater justice to attribute all police uses of force, all police abuses of power, or even all police incompetence to racism.
The past year’s waves of anti-police protests and hastily arranged changes to crime policy and police budgets are primarily about racial disparities in policing outcomes—as the umbrella for this movement, Black Lives Matter (BLM), makes clear. But there are faults both in the premise and in the approach of this movement that are sacrificing public safety while disproportionately costing Black lives and propagating antisemitism.
This is, first and foremost, because of the “reimagine policing” rhetoric that has built up around BLM—a kind of utopian thinking that leaps over the very concrete, real-world progress in policing methodology, guidelines, accountability, and culture that American cities have made since the 1990s, instead simply insisting that we should live in a society without law enforcement. Sure, why not? Except for the fact that policing provides the fundamental safety necessary for all citizens to thrive. This protection sometimes requires either use of force or the threat of its use, and creates a profound though legitimate imbalance between authority and the public. But without it, no one is safe.
BLM asserts that any negative interaction between police and Black civilians is a manifestation of racism. It is true that Black citizens are more likely than others to be involved in violent confrontations with police. But here is why: The extent of police interaction with different racial groups depends very much on rates of crime victimization and crime commission. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, 35.9% of serious, nonfatal violent crimes are committed by Black offenders—disproportionate to their percentage of the population (around 13.4%). Furthermore, more than half of all murders nationwide in 2019 were committed by Black offenders, according to FBI data that tracks homicides where the race of the offender was known. Over 90% of these murder victims were also Black—as were more than 40% of all murder victims nationwide whose race was known.
While studies show a public belief that Black civilians comprise upwards of 60% of people killed by police, the actual reported figure for 2019 was 23.4%, below the reported rate of violent crime commission. In other words, while “systemic racism” makes for a tidy narrative about crime and policing, it’s false. By buying into this narrative and creating policy based on it, we are setting American criminal justice and public safety on a faulty footing.
The anti-cop movement points to all police use-of-force as an intractable, racist problem that has not been and cannot be solved by smarter policing and better training. In reality, the opposite has proven true. In 1971, when the New York Police Department (NYPD) began tracking these numbers, there were 810 police shooting incidents, 221 subjects shot and injured, and 93 shot and killed in the city. By 2019, that shooting incident number was down by an amazing 93.5%: A total of 24 criminal suspects were shot that year, 11 of whom were killed. Not only have better policies reduced police violence, they have gone hand-in-hand with proactive policing that has dramatically reduced violent crime. Murders in Gotham dropped from their peak in 1990, when they hit 2,245, to a low of 292 in 2017. Since Black and Hispanic New Yorkers routinely represent well more than half the city’s murder victims, the reduction in deaths each year represents thousands of Black lives saved. And those lives surely matter just as much as the lives of criminal suspects do.
Another ostensible goal of police reform is to increase Black and minority representation in urban police departments. But there again, the progress made has been ignored: Many of the country’s biggest police forces, including the NYPD, are majority minority. Some, like the Atlanta PD, are majority Black.
Rather than acknowledge these large and positive trends, the “defund” movement prefers to ignore them entirely, thereby undermining the people responsible for actual progress. Carmen Best, Seattle’s first Black female police chief, attracted a more diverse group of cadets, recruiting a graduating class that was one-third minority—compared to the SPD over all, which was only one-quarter minority. Many of these were sought-after lateral recruits, professionals enticed from other jobs to grow a forward-thinking and professional force. But following protests last summer, Seattle’s City Council cut SPD’s budget by $4 million, kicking these fresh recruits out of the force and leading Chief Best to quit in solidarity with a cohort that had bought into the idea of a visionary, diverse department, only to have their offers reneged.
Rather than looking to successful police reforms, modernization, and data-driven policy solutions, BLM endorses scrapping much of policing itself, and ostracizing and demonizing what is left. The movement points to the history of American racism, and even to slavery itself, as proof that today’s 800,000 sworn officers bear some invisible but indelible marker of bigotry. Without providing convincing evidence that “police” are racist, it has steered the focus of much of the country’s policing policies away from crime prevention and excellent policing, instead favoring witch hunts against the cartoonish bigotry that it imagines is buried deep within the souls of cops.
Why should Jews feel particularly implicated in this mess? One reason is that when societies try to avoid hard realities, they often blame their eventual failures on the Jews for their supposed lack of commitment to the cause (for example, when people discover that a system of fully communal property doesn’t actually work). No matter how much we worry that Black Americans are too often implicated in a flawed criminal justice system, we shouldn’t falsely blame all cops in the misguided hope that the witch hunt won’t eventually target us.
In more practical terms, the diminishing of police presence and resources leaves Jews, along with everyone else, at greater risk from crime and lawlessness. The greatest immediate impact is on Black communities. Black Americans tend to disproportionately be the victims of violent crime, which, in the wake of BLM protests starting last summer, has skyrocketed. In New York City, the number of shooting victims is currently up 107% year-to-date (YTD) over 2019, and shooting incidents in April 2021 were up 166% over April 2020. In a city where Blacks make up more than 70% of shooting victims, it is primarily Black residents of Black neighborhoods who are paying with their lives for our foray into make-believe theories of policing.
But the depolicing movement has also made Jews more vulnerable, since partnerships between Jewish communities and police departments are critical to preventing and punishing antisemitic assaults—long the leading category of hate crime in NYPD data (other than during the first quarter of 2021, when anti-Asian assaults assumed that distinction). In 2019, the NYPD reported 252 antisemitic incidents; in 2020, it made 102 hate crimes arrests; and, in the first quarter of 2021, the NYPD made 38 hate crime arrests. As of last week, hate crimes were up 122% YTD over 2020, and in June alone, hate crimes rose by almost 250%. Of the 832 hate crime incidents reported by the NYPD since 2019, 406 were committed against Jews.
Identifying and apprehending antisemitic attackers is labor-intensive, as demonstrated by the case of Jordan Burnette, who went on an 11-day spree trashing synagogues and siddurim in the Bronx. Responding to this required a full-court press by the NYPD: The Hate Crimes Unit provided detective work, and there was police surveillance on multiple nights, including stakeouts and patrols. Counterterrorism officers were assigned to guard synagogues as well as other houses of worship, and Intelligence Bureau analysts helped across the board.
Law enforcement is also on the frontlines protecting Jews from major terrorist organizations and low-level extremist groups that target them. Since the 9/11 attacks, law enforcement agencies have worked to better coordinate response and prevention strategies, integrating federal homeland security with local hometown security. In late 2019, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called for congressional legislation to direct funding to allow police departments to increase focus on hate crimes.
Between 1992 and 2011, eight out of 18 Islamist plots to attack New York City targeted Jewish institutions or Jewish people in New York. White supremacists have killed 12 American Jews since 2018 and continue to plot attempts that law enforcement bodies, like the NYPD’s Racially and Ethnically Motivated Extremism team, ferret out and quash.
The fantasy that the key to public safety is being kinder to criminals—rather than kinder to the victims of crime—not only sacrifices the physical resources that police need to keep Jews safe. It’s coming back to bite them. The climate of lawlessness that reigns in many of America’s big cities following last summer’s protests against law enforcement appears to have fed the rise in hate crimes. And the increase in violent repeat offenders thanks to “progressive” reforms is feeding this trend. Last month, for example, Brandon Elliot brutally assaulted an Asian woman while hurling ethnic insults at her. Elliot, who was on lifetime parole for fatally stabbing his mother in front of his 5-year-old sister, typifies the violent profile of many of this past year’s hate crime perpetrators.
It is nonsensical to pretend that violent actors don’t often act violently, or that it is “racist” to arrest violent criminals if they belong to certain racial categories. Three back-to-back police shootings in April earned angry accusations of police racism from congresspeople, celebrities, and Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League. But from the evidence so far, it appears the shooting of Daunte Wright outside Minneapolis was a fatal act of negligence. The shooting of Adam Toledo in Chicago was a tragic but defensible life-or-death millisecond decision that an officer was forced to make while responding to shots fired in a dark alley at 2:30 a.m., in a city whose homicide rate is up 22% this year and has had over 1,000 shooting victims since January. The shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant was a heroic fast-action that saved the life of an innocent Black girl who was about to be stabbed. If we say a Black teenager who is about to stab a young girl may not be shot by police, even after refusing to drop her weapon, we are really saying that different rules apply to different races. We are saying that we judge not by actions but by the outcomes we wish to see and the demographic statistics we feel would be fair.
It should worry us to our marrow, as Jews, that false allegations of human evil are being used against people responsible for preventing actual criminality. Practically speaking, it is also stupid to promote an ideology that will be used to discriminate against us, while depriving us of the physical protection we continue to need against criminals and psychopaths of all religions, races, and political beliefs. We should worry that judging rectitude by race and not by behavior will boomerang on us.
And so it already has. No matter how many synagogues fly BLM banners, Jews are lumped together with police in this morality play. Jewish students on campuses have been ousted from BLM-aligned groups on the grounds that supporting Israel makes them intrinsically racist. And that was only a preamble to the nightmare of the last few weeks: Israel widely depicted in America as the racist cop, hated and condemned regardless of the law or the spuriousness of allegations of racism and brutality. The stage was set for the recent violent attacks on Jewish pedestrians in Manhattan and outdoor diners in Los Angeles—and for members of Congress to pile on.
More than ever, we need robust and empowered law enforcement that continues to make intelligent adaptations in order to check the rise in hate crimes and the environment of disorder that supports it. The police racism narrative is false, and Jews need to speak out against it—not only because it’s wrong, but because it’s uniquely dangerous to us.
Hannah Elka Meyers is director of policing and public safety at the Manhattan Institute. She spent a decade managing analytical teams at a private investigations firm and at NYPD’s Intelligence Bureau.