Op-ed: Obama’s police distortions

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Wednesday, July 13, 2016 12:36pm
  • Opinion

President Barack Obama is a lawyer, not a statistician, and it shows.

After the controversial officer-involved shootings in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Falcon Heights, Minnesota, Obama unloosed a series of statistics in his remarks in Warsaw, Poland, to show “racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system” — in other words, racial bias by police, prosecutors and judges.

Obama related numbers about disparate rates of police shootings, arrests and searches, among other things, without mentioning the single most important factor to put such figures in context, which is that blacks commit criminal offenses at higher rates than whites.

No one likes to point this out, and so it usually is left out of our perpetual “national conversations” about race, even though it is highly relevant information. It opens up whoever says it to charges of racism, or at least callousness in the aftermath of questionable police shootings.

If anyone should be free to speak the truth, though, it should be President Obama, who imagines himself a coolly analytical figure on a historic mission to bind the nation’s racial wounds. Instead, he routinely gives a fundamentally distorted picture of the American criminal justice system — and police shootings — by eliding truths apparently too uncomfortable for him to say and his supporters to hear.

“African-Americans,” Obama said in Warsaw, “are arrested at twice the rate of whites.” But African-Americans commit about 24 percent of violent crimes, even though they are 13 percent of the population. Of course they are going to be arrested at disproportionate rates. About half of murderers are black, and over 40 percent of killings of police officers are committed by blacks.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t bad cops or that there isn’t bias in policing, but the picture painted by Black Lives Matter of pervasive police predation, and an open season on blacks, is a politicized lie.

A new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found racial disparities in lower-level use of police force — e.g., police placing hands on civilians or pushing them into walls. But it concluded that “on the most extreme use of force — officer-involved shootings — we are unable to detect any racial differences in either the raw data or accounting for controls.”

How is that possible, given the outsize role of allegedly racist police shootings in our politics? It just might be that Black Lives Matter and the media take a few instances of police-involved shootings and dramatize and obsess over them to create a sense that cops are itching to shoot black people. Some of these cases involve genuine crimes by the police; others harrowingly mistaken judgments; and still others completely justifiable acts that are lied about by Black Lives Matters, most notably the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

If President Obama really wanted to try to cool passions on this issue, he would go even further in saying common-sensical things unwelcome to an inflamed Left.

He might routinely mention that the best way to try to avoid a police confrontation that might go tragically wrong is to comply with police orders and pursue a complaint or lawsuit later, outside the heat of the moment. He might note that just because an incident looks bad on an initial video, it doesn’t mean the police did anything wrong, and no one should assume as much. He might gently remind Black Lives Matter that its initial understanding of what happened in Ferguson was entirely erroneous and that the case should remain a cautionary tale about drawing large conclusions on the basis of fragmentary (or dishonest) evidence.

He could do all of this and still speak to his belief, and that of so many other blacks, that they have been targeted and treated unfairly by police. That he won’t is an indictment of his political courage and intellectual honesty on an issue where he should be uniquely suited to lead.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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