Reviewed by: Vincent Harinam, 2018
Contemporary discourse surrounding questionable law enforcement practices and associated interactions with minority communities has been spurred by the high-profiled deaths of several African-American men. An amalgam of case studies and credible data, Heather Mac Donald’s The War on Cops attempts to refocus these discussions by examining the statistical and political reality of the American criminal justice system. Mac Donald examines the validity of various policy prescriptions in facilitating criminal justice reform but situates her conclusions within statistical analyses. It is important to clarify that the “war on cops” epitaph is not a literal claim of greater violence against law enforcement. Rather, Mac Donald’s use of this phraseology reflects her thesis that increasing pushback against police proactivity amid sensational reporting and public hostility increases the likelihood of crime spikes in areas where law enforcement have disengaged. Notwithstanding its orientation towards political conservatism, The War on Cops provides broader insight into the nascent politicization of criminological research.
Mac Donald divides this book into four sections with each section expounding upon a specific topic. Section one features an inquiry into the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and its role in catalyzing the hotly contested “Ferguson effect.” According to Mac Donald, the protests in Ferguson following Brown’s shooting sparked public outcry against police proactivity in St. Louis County, resulting in 47 per cent and 82 per cent increases in homicide and robbery by November 2014. This was termed the Ferguson effect. The Ferguson effect refers to a disengagement from discretionary enforcement activity by police in the face of local hostility which results in local crime increases. As such, there is a perceived chilling effect on proactive policing as local law enforcement are hesitant to investigate suspicious behavior for fear of public recrimination. Mac Donald further clarifies that the Ferguson effect is not a universal phenomenon but a local occurrence specific to select cities where there has been statistically significant increases in crime following intense agitation against local law enforcement. To her credit, Mac Donald offers a fairly extensive statistical breakdown of local crime increases relative to the crime decline of the mid-1990s. Section one also features a statistical analysis of police shootings where Mac Donald finds a lack of racial bias in police use of lethal force. This was later substantiated by a much-publicized 2016 study by Harvard Economist Roland Fryer.
In section two, Mac Donald critiques the legal push towards outlawing various proactive policing strategies. She couches her argument within analyses of Ligon v New York and Floyd v New York, linchpin cases which demonstrated the NYPD’s use of “stop, question, and frisk” to be unconstitutional. Mac Donald’s critique of Judge Scheindlin’s decisions pertains to conflicts of interest held by complainants and advocacy groups. Furthermore, the author discusses the methodological flaws in Dr. Jeffrey Fagan’s expert reports on stop and frisk, citing Fagan’s unwillingness to use criminal suspect data and impact zone analytics as well as the incorrect application of negative binomial regression analysis. Mac Donald points out that the inaccuracy of Fagan’s model was such that it predicted that a census tract with a black population of 85% or higher would incur 120 stops per month; the actual average in such tracts is 19 stops. Mac Donald makes the argument that the NYPD’s disproportionate use of stop and frisk against black males reflects their greater statistical likelihood of crime commission as opposed to racial bias. Again, the author chooses to engage with New York race-based crime statistics and demonstrates that the stop rate for blacks was actually lower than their crime rate would predict.
Section three deviates from prior sections, positing a potential explanation for periodical crime increases through case studies of Chicago and Philadelphia. Mac Donald maintains that violent crime can be explained by the breakdown of the family amid substantial increases in single motherhood since the 1960’s. While there is empirical evidence substantiating the relationship between familial instability and crime, I have personal difficulty subscribing to Mac Donald’s bivariate analysis. Explanations for complex problems (e.g. extreme crime increases) which posit a single explanatory variable (familial instability, poverty, firearm availability, illicit drug markets, etc.) are often incapable of explaining such a multifaceted phenomenon because of the one-dimensionality of the posited explanatory variable. While familial instability may explain certain parameters of a city-wide crime increase it is incapable of explaining additional parameters for which other variables explicitly consider. Mac Donald has accepted the fallacy that the goal of scientific research is to produce the most parsimonious account of the studied phenomenon. An additive model which amalgamates several confirmed hypotheses for periodical increases in violent crime may have served Mac Donald better.
Section three also features a critique of Alice Goffman’s On the Run as Mac Donald attempts to contrast her view of the American criminal justice system with Goffman’s. This amounts to a rather intriguing juxtaposition between the liberal and conservative conceptualizations of crime and criminal justice. Importantly, Mac Donald, by engaging with Goffman, details (perhaps inadvertently) the politicization of criminological research whereby scholarly work (produced by liberals and conservatives) may at times serve to maintain a specific ideological narrative rather than the pursuit of truth. Finally, section four offers a particularly detailed examination of mass incarceration and the decriminalization of select illicit substances. The author also presents a very thorough analysis of race-based drug sentencing, finding a lack of racial bias when controlling for co-occurring violent offenses, criminal histories, and drug specification. Notably, Mac Donald’s hardline stance on prison reform (“America does not have an incarceration problem, it has a crime problem”) represents an increasingly unpopular opinion among conservatives as numerous right-wing figures (e.g., Ben Shapiro, Newt Gingrich, Rand Paul) have endorsed prison reform in some form.
Albeit a thorough and thought-provoking read, The War on Cops possesses several weaknesses. On one hand, there is often an overreliance on anecdotal evidence as Mac Donald will often support a major point by sharing the opinion of an interviewee. While it is fine to do so for a cursory point, we cannot be sure if a singular opinion is representative of broader public consensus or reflective of a selection bias. Second, Mac Donald’s use of caustic partisan rhetoric has a tendency of deflating some of her major points. While Mac Donald appears to possess a conservative ideology, belaboring the failures of liberal policies and policy makers, while effective in a political ad, is not particularly constructive when making an academic argument. Finally, there is a failure to consider areas where criminal justice reform is actually needed. While I am certain Mac Donald does not believe the American criminal justice system to be perfect, she does not consider areas (e.g., police paramilitarism, transparency, etc.) where improvements can be made.
The War on Cops presents an alternative to what is often considered in criminological circles. Though overly political at times, Heather Mac Donald presents several strong arguments wrapped in statistics and case studies. This book is a must-read for any criminologist not because its premises and arguments are necessarily correct but because it presents a varying viewpoint which should be considered and cross-examined.