Few Conservatives Take Police Abuses Seriously

There is overwhelming evidence of widespread civil-rights violations and unlawful brutality. Yet the movement's reflex is still to ignore or deny the problem.

Nearly a quarter century ago, the libertarian magazine Reason published an essay on civil unrest suffused with an insight that movement conservatism still hasn't grasped. Then-editor Virginia Postrel was writing in the wake of the Los Angeles riots of 1992. "What caused the riots?" she asked. "How do we prevent them from recurring?" She agreed with law-and-order voices of that era that a dearth of conscience and empathy were factors. "Only people without empathy could drag people out of their cars and beat them within an inch of their lives," she wrote. "Only people without empathy could burn and loot the lives and dreams of their neighbors." But she went on to observe that a small criminal element preys on South Los Angeles every day whereas riots occur once in a generation. Rottenness may have been necessary to explain the beating of Reginald Denny or the terror inflicted on small business owners, but it wasn't sufficient to explain such mayhem.

To turn rottenness into riots, she argued, another necessary condition was widespread rage. "Black Angelenos, black Americans, are very, very angry. Most did not riot; many saw their stores burn, their dreams explode, their lives suddenly get harder," she wrote. "Nor were all the rioters either black or angry: a plurality of looters arrested were Latino; many in Hollywood and downtown were white ... But rage did fuel these riots, at least at the beginning. To violent people, the not-guilty verdicts—and the rage they engendered among the general public—provided a signal to riot, to converge at once on shops and passersby. Rage supplied cover for more venal motivations. And it spurred the political apologies for the rioters."

As well, the attention paid to the riots gave the non-violent majority a chance to peacefully voice their rage. "If you listen to what those people are actually saying—often in loud and angry voices—you will not hear the cliches of pundits and politicians," she wrote. "The Great Society, pro or con, will not come up. Instead you will hear this: The criminal justice system does not protect black Americans. It does not make their streets safe from violence. It does not rally to the side of black crime victims. It sees black people only as criminals, never as citizens. It does not give them respect." The LAPD was not the only contributing factor, but anyone hoping to understand the L.A. riots had to contend with the city's policing.

* * *

America has just endured another riot. And just as the L.A. riots could not be understood apart from both the beating of Rodney King and the decades of policing that shaped the relationship between the LAPD and the black community, Monday's riot in Baltimore, Maryland cannot be understood apart from both the death of Freddie Gray and years of misbehavior by Baltimore's police department.

Why do so few conservatives grant that?

It isn't as if conservatives must focus on denouncing the rioters as though no one else is doing it. In Baltimore, no passersby were pulled from their cars and beaten nearly to death; there may have been as few as two or three arsonists; many of the looters are better described as impulsive high-school knuckleheads than rotten criminals. Even so, condemning their actions is a near consensus position in U.S. politics. President Obama rightly declared, "There's no excuse for the kind of violence we saw," adding, "a handful of people are taking advantage ... and need to be treated as criminals." Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake dubbed them "thugs," echoing every conservative critique of rioting in multiple interviews (even as hack pundits across America egregiously misrepresented her actual positions and words). Still other black leaders echoed the same conservative judgments even as they insisted that years of police abuses help to explain the civic unrest.

Meanwhile, most conservatives either ignored or were oblivious to the Baltimore police department's stunning record of egregious, normalized brutality and civil rights abuses. It would be one thing if these conservative pundits acknowledged that police brutality and violations of the Constitutional rights of black people are epidemic in Baltimore but argued that other factors mostly explain Monday's civil unrest. Agreeing on what caused the riots isn't actually vital when taken in isolation.

What's vexing actually predates the riots: It is movement conservatism's general, longstanding blindness to massive rights violations by police. The myopia has somehow persisted even in an era when an hour on YouTube provides incontrovertible evidence of egregious brutality by scores of thuggish cops. Per usual, let us acknowledge the many U.S. police officers who serve their communities with honor, courage, empathy, and restraint. One needn't disrespect them to see that bad policing is common. It is more than "a few bad apples."

"Conservatives do not like sweeping denunciations of the entire criminal justice system as racist, and they especially do not like violent protests, looting, and attacks on policemen—all very rightly," Jason Steorts wrote in National Review after the Justice Department released its report on epidemic police misconduct in Ferguson, Missouri. "From there, too many conservatives have come to see any criticism of police conduct, or any allegation of racism, as if it were a play by the opposing team," he added. "Instead, they should reflect that all that is correct in their defense of the police is compromised by the extension of that defense to anything unworthy of it."

A few lonely conservatives have written on Baltimore as though heeding his counsel. Although Robert Driscoll is strangely dismissive of exhaustively documented police abuses in Ferguson, he took to the pages of National Review to urge its readership to refrain from reflexively dismissing the critiques of Baltimore cops, noting that if the DOJ is to probe the practices of any law enforcement agency, "it is hard to think of where it would be appropriate to open such an investigation if not a city with the record of police misconduct payments that Baltimore has."

Yet the vast majority of commentary on Baltimore in right-leaning outlets is myopic and the blindspot is nearly always the ugly reality of bad policing in America.

Said Jonathan Tobin in Commentary, "Let’s start by saying that protests about the death of Freddie Gray while in the hands of the police were justified. Every time a person suffers an injury, let alone, a death as a result of police action, it should prompt a serious investigation. But, like the reactions to the death of another young black man in Ferguson, Missouri, or the man who died as a result of a choke hold from a policeman in Staten Island, New York, the effort to spin a narrative of police oppression seems more of an attempt to contrive a false narrative of oppression than it is a genuine response to what may well have been a criminal act by a cop."

But there is ample evidence of widespread police oppression! There is certainly enough to credit those alleging it with an honest judgment rather than dismissing them as disingenuous.

The Economist has noted that "British citizens are around 100 times less likely to be shot by a police officer than Americans." If that figure doesn't grab you, know that over the last four years, "the police force of one small American city—Albuquerque in New Mexico—shot and killed 23 civilians; seven times more than the number of Brits killed by all of England and Wales’s forces during the same period." The U.S. imprisons a much higher percentage of its citizens than any similar country and frequently fails to protect those prisoners from being raped or assaulted, even when they are kids. The FBI helped send multiple people to death row based partly on junk science that was also used to convict people for lesser crimes for two decades. DNA exonerations of longtime prisoners are legion. Asset forfeiture laws have police seizing the property of Americans who've never been convicted of anything.  The War on Drugs has eroded the Fourth Amendment and undermined the sanctity of the home to an oppressive degree, such that it is no longer surprising to hear about no-knock raids where family pets are shot, flash bang grenades burn innocents, and people are killed. Black and Hispanic men are stopped and frisked dozens of times by police without having done anything wrong.

Many conservatives show no evidence of caring. And many are complicit in abusive policing. (Conservative voters keep reelecting Sheriff Joe Arpaio, for example, despite his presiding over civil rights violations costing tens of millions of dollars, prisoners zapped with stun guns while strapped in restraint chairs,and the hiring of a private investigator to tail the wife of a federal judge, among many other sins).

With respect to Baltimore, it's madness that so many conservatives are unwilling to accept that policing there is oppressive and unprofessional (regardless of what happened to Freddie Gray). How would Jonathan Tobin characterize what follows?

Lots of urban police departments are plagued by scandal and rife with police brutality. But almost none of the scandals are covered in movement conservative magazines. What will it take for most conservatives to acknowledge the extent of the problem?

Whole books could be written about additional, documented abuses by Baltimore police alone. The evidence is overwhelming. Where is movement conservatism's response to that disorder? For the sake of argument, let's imagine that the lawlessness and brutality of the Baltimore police had nothing to do with the city's riots. There is still no excuse for a movement that perennially ignores the decades-old scandal of our criminal justice system. If public school teachers or community organizers behaved as badly, the outrage on AM radio and Fox News would be constant. Yet police abuses as numerous and egregious as what the Baltimore Sun documented in this stellar investigation garnered orders of magnitude less coverage and outrage from conservatives than James O'Keefe stinging ACORN.

Disparities like that are a problem for an ideological movement that purports to believe in upholding rights named in the Constitution, guarding against the tendency of governments to abuse citizens, and ensuring that extraordinary powers are checked and balanced. An earnest desire to live up to those ideals has inspired some conservatives to embrace reforms to sentencing laws and mass incarceration. Libertarian-leaning Republicans like Rand Paul may well have more to offer victims of the drug war and criminal justice system than Hillary Clinton.

Still, the conservative movement as a whole has no answer to corrupt cops or police departments, though they're among the most oppressive bureaucracies in the U.S. Prior to Baltimore, few voices on the right had even acknowledged the massive problem. Most commentary after the riots only highlights their blind spots. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger assigned blame for Monday's unrest to Al Sharpton, the phrase "no justice, no peace," and the unemployment rate. His column-length attempt to finger the causes of the riot makes no mention of Freddie Gray's unexplained death or Baltimore's long history of egregious policing. That hugely consequential local history is totally ignored.

The myopia sometimes manifests as a failure to apply "law-and-order" logic consistently. Jack Dunphy, a pseudonymous LAPD officer and longtime National Review contributor, wrote that "if you allow lawlessness to go unchallenged, you will very quickly have more of it. With the rioters thus emboldened, restoring order will now require a greater level of force than would have been necessary had the police been allowed to act decisively at the first sign of violence. As I write this no one has yet been killed in Baltimore, but I fear that will change soon enough." Why doesn't a policeman who believes that lawlessness begets more lawlessness have any record of urging reforms aimed at lawlessness by police officers? It isn't as if he's never seen misbehavior during his decades at a scandal-prone LAPD. Why isn't he professionally disgusted by the abysmal record of Baltimore cops? And one can't help but notice that when he says that "no one has yet been killed in Baltimore," he's using a timeline that arbitrarily begins after the killing of Freddie Gray.

National Review's editor, Rich Lowry, is similarly selective in the time horizons he chooses.  "Of course, law enforcement should always act responsibility," he wrote, "but parts of Baltimore were burning yesterday because the police were overly restrained." After watching residents of Ferguson, Missouri, riot even in the face of aggressive militarized battalions on its streets, I'm confused by the certainty some conservatives apparently feel that overly restrained police is what went wrong in Baltimore. But even if more assertive policing would've helped Monday, one need only look back a bit farther to see that if not for the insufficiently restrained policing that may have killed Freddie Gray and definitely brutalized scores of blacks in recent years, there very likely would not have been riots in Baltimore, just as there probably wouldn't have been LA riots if not for the LAPD's epidemic brutality.

In the Wall Street Journal, Jason Riley asks, "If the Ferguson protesters were responding to a majority-black town being oppressively run by a white minority—which is the implicit argument of the Justice Department and the explicit argument of the liberal commentariat—what explains Baltimore?" This is not difficult: that a city is run by back leaders does not make it immune to police brutality. Neither do black police officers, as the highly informed David Simon has attested:

When Ed [Burns] and I reported “The Corner,” it became clear that the most brutal cops in our sector of the Western District were black. The guys who would really kick your ass without thinking twice were black officers. If I had to guess and put a name on it, I’d say that at some point, the drug war was as much a function of class and social control as it was of racism.

The two agendas are inextricably linked, and where one picks up and the other ends is hard to say. But when you have African-American officers beating the dog-piss out of people they’re supposed to be policing, and there isn't a white guy in the equation on a street level, it's pretty remarkable. But in some ways they were empowered… You take out your nightstick and you’re white and you start hitting somebody, it has a completely different dynamic than if you were a black officer. It was simply safer to be brutal if you were black, and I didn't know quite what to do with that fact other than report it. It was as disturbing a dynamic as I could imagine. Something had been removed from the equation that gave white officers — however brutal they wanted to be, or however brutal they thought the moment required — it gave them pause before pulling out a nightstick and going at it. Some African American officers seemed to feel no such pause.

It would be fair for conservatives to point out that police brutality meted out by black officers complicates the narrative put forth by the least thoughtful progressives. And it's fair for Kevin Williamson to point out that for all the ire directed at Republicans, American cities, including Baltimore, "are by and large Democratic-party monopolies, monopolies generally dominated by the so-called progressive wing of the party." What's missing from his article is the acknowledgement that when Democrats from Bill Clinton to former Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley adopted tough-on-crime policies and embraced the War on Drugs, they were drawing on movement conservative and neoconservative ideology and cheered by Republicans whose record of holding police accountable is inferior to Democrats. As ever, the embrace of oppressive policing policies is bipartisan.

Williamson also ignores the degree to which Republican politicians at the local, state and federal levels have been influenced by pernicious police and prison guard unions. Indeed, Baltimore's black, Democratic mayor has urged specific policing reforms that were blocked by Maryland lawmakers beholden to those unions. There is, as well, the fact that liberal and libertarian nonprofits have done far more to object to abusive policing than their analogues within movement conservatism. And while Eric Holder is no one's idea of a civil-liberties champion, he's done more to address police misconduct than all Bush-era attorneys general combined. Williamson asks, "When will the Left be held to account for the brutality in Baltimore—brutality for which it bears a measure of responsibility on both sides?" To which I'd say, as soon as the right offers a plausibly better alternative. Its failure to do so is especially embarrassing given how low a bar Democrats have set.

National Review is a diverse publication that publishes some impressive commentary from some first-rate minds. As noted, a couple of its writers have seriously grappled with police misconduct and others have fleshed out useful differences in how the right and left might approach the task of addressing urban dysfunction. But winning converts will be impossible for conservatism so long as those familiar with how tough it is to be born poor and black in Baltimore are as likely to encounter this:

The young rioters have had their butts kissed for a long time. They’ve been told they are victims — victims of a society rigged against them. A racist society. They’ve been told they aren’t free in life, but shackled. They’ve been brought up to regard themselves as entitled and victimized, at the same time. In truth, they are among the luckiest people in the whole world: to have been born American. Millions, probably billions, would be happy to trade places with them. The rioters are free to make of life what they will. Their shackles are mental and spiritual.

The writer, Jay Nordlinger, on other occasions strikes me as a kind-hearted, well-meaning person, but it beggars belief that an intellectual who calls poor black teens in Baltimore's roughest neighborhoods as "among the luckiest people in the whole world" sees no incongruity in casting multimillionaire radio host Rush Limbaugh as a put-upon victim of Nazi-like ideological adversaries and describing the wrongful termination of a UCLA professor as a "sickening injustice."

To illustrate the hard, metallic reality of the shackles that Nordlinger characterizes as "mental and spiritual," let's return to David Simon, who described one occasion when a Baltimore mayor with aspirations for higher office sought to rapidly decrease crime rates by juking the statistics and relying on policing gimmicks. "The department began sweeping the streets of the inner city, taking bodies on ridiculous humbles, mass arrests, sending thousands of people to city jail, hundreds every night, thousands in a month," he explained. "They actually had police supervisors stationed with printed forms at the city jail—forms that said, essentially, you can go home now if you sign away any liability the city has for false arrest, or you can not sign the form and spend the weekend in jail until you see a court commissioner. And tens of thousands of people signed that form."

He continued:

The city eventually got sued by the ACLU and had to settle, but O’Malley defends the wholesale denigration of black civil rights to this day. Never mind what it did to your jury pool: now every single person of color in Baltimore knows the police will lie—and that's your jury pool for when you really need them for when you have, say, a felony murder case. But what it taught the police department was that they could go a step beyond the manufactured probable cause, and the drug-free zones and the humbles—the targeting of suspects through less-than-constitutional procedure. Now, the mass arrests made clear, we can lock up anybody, we don't have to figure out who's committing crimes, we don't have to investigate anything, we just gather all the bodies—everybody goes to jail. And yet people were scared enough of crime in those years that O’Malley had his supporters for this policy, council members and community leaders who thought, They’re all just thugs.

But they weren’t.

They were anybody who was slow to clear the sidewalk or who stayed seated on their front stoop for too long when an officer tried to roust them. Schoolteachers, Johns Hopkins employees, film crew people, kids, retirees, everybody went to the city jail. If you think I’m exaggerating look it up.

Show me a so-called constitutional conservative who objected. I don't know of any. Or tell me the law-and-order rational for a police force that suddenly began dismissing rape allegations at staggering rates to manufacture the appearance of a drop in crime. And these are the officers and commanders we're supposed to venerate?

The Baltimore police department cannot be trusted.

That is an inconvenient truth for anyone who understands that Baltimore needs a police force to keep law and order. It is nevertheless true. That's why reforms are urgent.

The utter failure of movement conservatism to address the issue of police misconduct is particularly unfortunate when one imagines the role the movement could play. National Review long ago declared itself in favor of ending the War on Drugs (though many of their readers and some of their writers vehemently disagree). The right is open to body cameras for police. Those measures alone would do good. But a foe that neither the Democrats, who make a fetish of labor solidarity, nor the Republicans, who make a fetish of men and women in police uniforms, will battle are the police unions that do more than any entity to keep bad cops on the street (or the prison guard unions that play a similarly pernicious role). [Update: Via Ross Douthat, there is a voice at NR urging reform of police unions too.]

Perhaps fixing police culture and the many corrupt police departments in America will ultimately require some blend of insights from conservatives and liberals carried out by coalitions of Republicans and Democrats. It'll be hard to find out so long as so much of the conservative movement is stubbornly blind to the problem.