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Memphis’s Problems Are Only Going to Get Worse

Memphis’s Problems Are Only Going to Get Worse

Tyre Nichols’s death is a tragedy, but the data show that crime soars when police pull back.

Jason L. Riley, WSJ

Jan. 31, 2023 6:03 pm ET

A New York Times article last week on Tyre Nichols managed to work multiple references to “the old Confederacy” into a news story about the death of a black suspect pummeled by black police officers in a city with a black police chief. Such is the desire of the media to shoehorn this tragedy into a predetermined racial narrative.

There’s a lot we still don’t know about what happened to Nichols, and the investigation is ongoing. If the media wanted to play a constructive role it could provide some context and remind the public that fatal encounters between police officers and civilians—including black civilians—are rare in America, even though annual contacts between police and the public number more than 60 million. In recent years, these incidents have gained more attention because of social media, but that doesn’t mean they’re happening more often.

In a 2021 report published by the Manhattan Institute, the political scientist Eric Kaufmann noted that “police killings of African-Americans declined by 60%-80% from the late 1960s to the early 2000s and have remained at this level ever since.” A study published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Surgery in 2018 looked at more than a million service calls to police departments in Arizona, Louisiana and North Carolina and found that officers used physical force in the course of arrests less than 1% of the time. Moreover, 98% of suspects who were arrested using force “sustained no or mild injury.”

In New York City, home to the nation’s largest police department, police shootings have declined by about 90% since the early 1970s. Nationwide, police killed 999 people in 2019, according to a database maintained by the Washington Post. The victims, almost all of whom had weapons, included 424 whites and 253 blacks. Twelve of the black victims and 26 of the white victims were unarmed.

Even assuming the worst—that the police officers in the Tyre Nichols video are as guilty as they appear to be—it would be wrong to generalize about policing based on this incident. The data simply don’t comport with the criticism of cops as racist and prone to excessive force. What we do know from recent past experience is that violent crime in Memphis, Tenn., where the incident occurred, is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist who has researched the aftermath of high-profile encounters between black suspects and police, found a disturbing pattern. When police departments are investigated following incidents of deadly force that have gone viral, police activity tends to decline and violent crime increases. It happened in Ferguson, Mo., after Michael Brown was gunned down by a police officer. It happened in Chicago after a cop fatally shot Laquan McDonald. And it happened in Baltimore after a young black man died in police custody after his arrest.

In a 2020 academic paper, Mr. Fryer and co-author Tanaya Devi concluded that in cities where investigations weren’t prompted by national media attention there was little change in police behavior or in homicides. But for “investigations that were preceded by a viral incident of deadly force—Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Riverside [Calif.], and Ferguson—there is a marked increase in both homicide and total crime.” The problem, they determined, was not the investigation itself but the circumstances under which it occurred. In Baltimore and Chicago, police-civilian encounters fell by 90% or more after the investigations were announced, and violent crime soared.

“Our estimates suggest that investigating police departments after viral incidents of police violence is responsible for approximately 450 excess homicides per year,” write Mr. Fryer and Ms. Devi. “This is 2x the loss of life in the line of duty for the US Military in a year, 12.6x the annual loss of life due to school shootings, and 3x the loss of life due to lynchings between 1882 and 1901—the most gruesome years.”

When I interviewed Mr. Fryer in 2020, shortly after he released his findings, he stressed to me that he was “not saying police departments shouldn’t be investigated.” Rather, he hoped his findings would “encourage more introspection on the trade-offs involved when we increase scrutiny on police departments.” He suggested targeting individual officers rather than entire departments and letting local investigations run their course before calling in the federal authorities.

Sadly, the media remains more interested in hot takes than introspection or explaining the difference between anecdotes and statistical evidence. Even sadder is the fact that the mostly law-abiding residents of poor black communities will bear the brunt of any crime surge in Memphis, just as they have elsewhere. They know better than anyone that criminality remains a much bigger problem than policing, even if activists, politicians and the press further endanger society by pretending the reverse is true.

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