NEW YORK — Four law and order experts sparred in New York City Wednesday night over evidence-based data suggesting policing isn't racially biased in America and blacks do in fact commit more crimes than other racial groups.
Opposing the motion that "policing is racially biased," Harry Stern, managing principal for the law firm Rains Lucia Stern, stated "an uncomfortable but inescapable truth." "And here it is: black people commit more crime per capita than other groups."
"It's not something that I say cheerfully, but it's true. And the real problem with that statement is not only that it makes me personally uncomfortable and it's hard to say, but that people hear it as, 'He's saying, black people are bad, or that black people are criminals.' And the natural response to that is a reflexive reaction which puts it back on the police," he explained.
The debate was held before a predominantly white audience inside the Kaufman Music Center on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Marq Claxton, a retired NYPD detective who is currently director of the Black Law Enforcement Alliance, and Gloria Browne-Marshall, associate professor of constitutional law at John Jay College and former civil rights attorney, were there to defend the motion.
Notably, the two defending the motion were black while the two — Stern and Heather Mac Donald, Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of The War On Cops — opposing it were white.
Stern, a former police officer with the City of Berkeley who now represents police officers in legal matters, commented on the "incredibly awkward experience" of "talking about race like this" and pointed out "the overt racism of the organizer" of the Intelligence Squared U.S. debate "by pitting two black people against two white people."
In his opening remarks, Claxton was quick to remind the audience about the focus of the debate – bias and its role in policing.
Citing a definition from the Black's Law Dictionary, he highlighted bias as an "inclination, a bent, a prepossession, a preconceived notion or predisposition to decide a cause or an issue in a certain way."
"I suspect that through the course of this evening what you're going to hear is a boatload of statistics, a truckload of data that will attempt to explain what many of us already know ... When you're talking about police bias, let's just be honest about it because these numbers, this data that I suspect that you'll be hearing this evening, actual bias is not easily quantified," he said.
He explained that it would be difficult to grasp the role of bias in policing without the appropriate historical and legal context which Marshall would later discuss.
"If you deny bias ... you reject not only your common sense but the experiences of many people like myself, a rejection of bias in policing is intellectually dishonest," he said.
Claxton, a 20-plus year veteran of the NYPD, also presented police officers as victims of biased policing practices.
"It is not the everyday police officer who sets the tone and determines the level of bias in policing right now. It is the system, which I'm sure Professor Marshall will be going into historical context again -- it is the system that places not only a certain population of citizens, but our police officers in increased harm's way," he argued.
Stern, meanwhile, asked the audience to not be distracted by the "emotional" stories and anecdotes of his opponents but focus on the data he and Mac Donald would present to support their case that policing is not racially biased.
"We often get lost in stories and anecdotes that seem wildly important and emotional to us but don't necessarily form the basis for promulgating policy," he said.
In her arguments, Marshall pointed to the historic ruling in the Floyd, et al. v. City of New York, et al. case on Aug. 12, 2013, when a federal judge found the New York City Police Department liable for a pattern and practice of racial profiling and unconstitutional stops after a nine-week trial.
"Policing is racially biased. We're not saying that every police officer operates with racial animus. We're saying, generally, policing is racially biased and we support the motion with law, history, and practice. With law. Well, this city -- New York City, was sued by Mr. Floyd, and in 2013 the federal court said policing in New York City is racially biased, as well as the Justice Department of the United States said there were small, as well as large, police departments across the country and are finding that policing is racially biased," she said.
"The United Nations said in 2013 in its report by the Human Rights Commission, policing is racially biased. By that point alone, we have won. However, we also need to know this, that the police department made up of people who've joined the police to help others are part of an extension of an American society that has race as that original sin," she added.
Marshall delivered a grim history lesson on race and law enforcement, then pressed her case.
"You will hear that the police officers have no choice but to go to into certain communities based on data. But can't it be both data as well as racial bias? We say that there is both. You can have some data, but there's also racial bias. He said that black people commit more crimes. What kind of crimes?" asked Marshall about Stern's declaration.
"Will someone Christian decide when the anti-Semitism is over? Will a man decide when there's no more sexism? I don't think so. There is racial bias," she said.
Mac Donald argued in her presentation, however, that data should not be discounted when deciding if there is bias in policing and if you look closely at crime statistics they will reveal a far different narrative than the one pushed in media.
"In order to save lives, cops go where people are most being victimized, and that is in minority neighborhoods. To understand policing, you first have to look at the facts of crime, however uncomfortable it may be to do so. I'm going to focus on fatal police shootings, because that has been the focus as well of the Black Lives Matter movement," she said.
"In 2015, cops killed 991 people -- the vast majority, armed and dangerous. Fifty percent of the victims of police shootings were white, though you would never know it from the press coverage. Among the white victims of fatal police shootings was a 50-year-old in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in a domestic violence incident, who ran at the officer with a spoon, and a 28-year-old driver in Des Moines, Iowa, who led the police on a car chase and then walked quickly towards the shooting officer," she explained.
She argued that if the two white victims had been black, their deaths would have been a national story but their deaths weren't highlighted because they did not fit into the victim narrative.
She then cited statistics from the Department of Justice showing blacks committing murders at a higher rate than all other racial groups and dying of homicide at a higher rate as well.
"According to the Justice Department, blacks die of homicide at six times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined. That's because blacks commit homicide at eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined ... In the 75 largest counties of the United States, which is where most of the population resides, blacks commit over 50 percent of all violent crime, though they're 15 percent of the population in those counties," she said. "These crime disparities are repeated in every big American city. Here in New York, blacks commit 75 percent of all shootings, though they're 23 percent of the population. How do we know that? That's what the victims of and witnesses to those shootings, who are overwhelmingly minority themselves, tell the police."
Mac Donald went on to discount the U.N. findings on racial bias in policing and criticized the findings of the Department of Justice under the Obama administration.
Claxton challenged the faith being placed in police data as a true reflection of crime by citing the use of quotas in policing.
"We've lost the faith in cops as have so many people. Why? Because quotas and the quest for data forces police officers to engage in conduct that they normally would not engage in. It's a matter of survival, job survival on many levels, and it's important for us to realize that we expose our brave men and women to increased liability by engaging in racial profiling or biased policing," he said.
Marshall also challenged her opponents to take a broader picture of crime instead of just focusing on violent crime to make the case that blacks commit more crime.
Stern explained, however, that that the focus on violent crime was a common-sense point.
"I'm going to go out on a limb and estimate that 100 percent of homicides are reported, okay? There isn't any disparity between the suburbs and the cities or farm communities about when people are getting murdered. They get reported," he said.
"I'm going to go out on a limb and estimate that the vast majority of our armed robberies, and shootings, and rapes are reported," he added with a little push-back from the audience on the rape reporting.
Though a majority of the audience, 60 percent, agreed with the motion that "policing is racially biased," the team arguing against the motion was declared winner of the debate at the end of the night because they were able to improve their support among the audience from 16 percent to 28 percent. The team arguing for the motion only moved up three points from 57 percent.
You can watch the complete debate below: