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There’s a storyline in vogue among those who would defund the cops that claims that modern policing grew out of the vile squads that hunted runaway slaves. “From slave patrols to traffic stops. We can’t reform this,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) recently admonished.
It’s a slur, and a dangerous one: Modern police didn’t get their start as slave patrols, and saying so is just one more way activists stir up anger against law enforcement. Such ahistorical statements silence vital dialogue about police reform and decrease trust.
Most of the 18,000 US police agencies were founded after abolition, and many were explicitly modeled on modern concepts of policing invented by the British. And the officers in many major cities — including LA, Houston and Atlanta — are mainly minorities. To call the increasingly diverse ranks of the police some kind of modern slave-driving force is offensive and obscene.
Such falsehoods distract from a much more important — and daunting — challenge. In many US cities in 2021, there is an inherent tension between police and black citizens. In 2020, in New York City, over 63 percent of homicide suspects were black, as were 65 percent of homicide victims. Over 49 percent of rape suspects were black, as were over 40 percent of rape victims.
Over 53 percent of felonious-assault suspects were black, as were over 46 percent of the victims. Almost 66 percent of robbery suspects and 61 percent of grand-larceny suspects were black. Over half the suspects for petit larceny, misdemeanor criminal mischief, possession of stolen property, juvenile felony and misdemeanor offenses were black. Most staggering: Over 72 percent of shooting suspects and nearly 74 percent of victims were black.
Gotham’s population is 21.7 percent black.
A quick look at the numbers above makes clear that NYPD will be interacting with black citizens under tense conditions a massively disproportionate amount of time. Not because of history, but because of crime rates.
We may not have an explanation for why crime commission is so unequal among New Yorkers of different races. But one thing is clear: To combat a very real and very understandable perception that police are targeting blacks, police need to interact with minority New Yorkers in non-tense situations. Community policing in the past few decades was such a positive revolution partly because it pushed officers to be fixtures in the community, to know a neighborhood and its residents, to be familiar and trusted.
Community policing isn’t glamorous or a “reimagined” police force, but it’s a powerful way to tamp down the impression that cops are the enforcers of an oppressive system, rather than partners in maintaining public safety.
When Mayor Bill de Blasio published his “NYC Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Draft Plan” in March, it began with this slavery narrative: “Racialized policing in New York City is a tragic part of that larger history of over 400 years of oppression, which runs from slave catching and kidnapping in the 19th century in a direct line through to more contemporary practices of unconstitutional stops and frisks of black and brown individuals.”
(There was no longer a single slave in New York City by the 1840 Census, and the NYPD wasn’t established until 1845, but why quibble?)
With truly gobstopping chutzpah the document continues: “We understand that we have not, nor can we, erase a 400-year legacy during one mayoralty, or as the result of one plan.” Putting aside the vainglory in thinking we looked to de Blasio to purge us of the stain of slavery, what does this mea culpa do to tackle the very current and difficult racial tensions around policing?
If the narrative we amplify is that the current NYPD, which is composed primarily of minorities, is just a few degrees of separation from slave hunters, will that increase trust? Politicians should be looking for ways to lower crime while improving the relationship between police and the community. Peddling historical lies isn’t the answer.
Hannah E. Meyers is director of the policing and public-safety initiative at the Manhattan Institute.
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