Rafael Mangual joins Brian Anderson to discuss the killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis and the broader criminal-justice landscape.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to 10 Blocks. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Rafael Mangual. He's been on the show before. He is the Nick Ohnell Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, head of research for MI's Policing and Public Safety Initiative, and a contributing editor to City Journal. He's also the author of the brilliant book, Criminal (In)Justice, and he's on today to discuss the state of crime and policing in the U.S. and his recent piece—"Brutal but Atypical”—on the police killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. So Ralf, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Last Friday, the city of Memphis released harrowing video footage of five police officers beating Nichols, who had been pulled over on suspicion of reckless driving. Nichols collapsed repeatedly as the officers were delivering kicks, blows to the head, baton strikes. Tragically, he died three days later. As you noted in your City Journal piece, reactions to the video have been—understandably—universally critical. Everyone who's seen that—whether on the Right or Left, whether a decarceration advocate or a law-and-order type, activist or police officer—denounced what happened. So is there any additional context that might help explain, without at all justifying, what happened there? Or was this really just a case of five men committing what amounted to a murder against a helpless victim?

Rafael Mangual: Yeah, I'm thinking that it's the latter, although I suppose as the investigation continues, we may or may not learn some things that might shed light on why this kind of crime may have been more likely to occur than it should have been. I mean, the New York Post over the weekend did a piece kind of noting that the Memphis Police Department had been struggling with recruitment and retention, and then as a result, lowered standards for officers right around the time that at least two of the individuals involved in the beating came onto the job.

And I've noted this on a number of prior occasions. I mean, my big worry about the anti-police rhetoric that we have seen kind of ramp up in the wake of Ferguson in 2014 is that it will function to discourage highly motivated high achievers from wanting to do this job. And if that happens on a grand enough scale, which I think we're starting to see, my fear, as I've articulated in the past, is that the delta between the typical perpetrator and the typical cop will start to shrink. And if that happens, we're going to see a lot more Tyre Nicholses. We're going to see a lot more cases in which blind rage overcomes the sort of disposition that we would want to see in officers. And that's a disposition toward restraint.

Brian Anderson: You could see really a downward spiral being created where you're bringing in less and less talented people.

Rafael Mangual: And this is kind of a theme that runs through criminal justice debates more broadly. I mean, I suspect that people who are critical of the institutions that constitute our law enforcement apparatus, kind of what their strategy is, is to work to deny the system resources. And that denial of resources, of course contributes to bad outcomes. And then those bad outcomes are pointed to as reason to either deny resources even more, or to disband the system altogether, which I suspect is the goal of some people. And that's, again, it's not really good for anyone if you care, truly care about outcomes. If you truly care about police abuse, you want very highly educated, psychologically stable people to take this job. And that's not going to happen if it keeps getting talked about the way that it is.

Brian Anderson: The mainstream press reaction, the reaction of some politicians to this, is to try to frame the story in two or three different ways. So one, that the killing demonstrated the fundamental racism of police, even though five of the officers, like Nichols, were black. Another perhaps more widespread response gets to what you were just talking about, that the policing profession is fundamentally corrupt, even though in this case in Memphis, the officers were immediately fired, they've been charged with crimes and they've been attacked by the profession across the country. Some of the commentators in the press even seemed to express disappointment that the killing had not resulted in widespread rioting and mayhem as we had seen so awfully in 2020. So, what is your view of these three different reactions? Why are these off-base? The charges of racism seems particularly a stretch here given the race of the perpetrators, but what do you take away from those three responses?

Rafael Mangual: Yeah, I mean, the racism accusation is really a reflection of police critics folding themselves into pretzels here. I mean, as you said, all of the officers involved were black as well as Tyre Nichols. There wasn't a word uttered about his race throughout the beating. No, nothing on the body cam footage that seemed to indicate that this was a motivating factor. And I don't think that it needs to be in order for us to be outraged about it. I mean, there's this sense that all bad things must be racist, which I think is probably wrong. But the way that I understand the people who make that accusation, basically what they're saying is not that necessarily these individual officers were motivated by racial animus, but that they are part of an institution into which racism is imbued into which that has fundamental foundations in a racist history and a racist past such that oppression is kind of built into the formula.

And I think that's also wrong, and I think it's wrong for the following reasons. I mean, the argument rests on disparities that exist in enforcement, and there is no denying that black men are more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts. There's no denying that black men are more likely to be the subjects of uses of force as compared to their white counterparts, be imprisoned, et cetera. But that only looks at one side of the ledger. Enforcement is not the only output of policing or the criminal justice system at large. It also, when it works, produces crime declines. Every single study of policing that we have seen that actually looks at what its impact is, I'm talking causal analysis, randomized control experiments, the highest quality research that you can do, they all show that policing generally, investments in policing hotspots, all reduce crime.

Now, why is that important in the context of a race accusation? Because crime is not evenly distributed. If you look at our homicide problem and you charted out homicide rates broken down by race, for black males, they'd have to extend the chart to the height of a skyscraper. Yet for their white counterparts, it would be much lower. I mean, the black male homicide rate is 10 times the white male homicide rate. So when crime goes down, it disproportionately benefits low-income minority communities, particularly black men.

Brian Anderson: Well, they're the primary victims of the murders being committed by the black males in question.

Rafael Mangual: That's exactly right. And so the question becomes then, why on earth would an institution allegedly designed and operated for the specific oppression of black men, so disproportionately benefit black men, when the system achieves its state, it ends? And ask any police chief, any law-and-order prosecutor, how do you define success? What is it that you want to achieve? And they'll tell you, "We want to get crime under control. We want to reduce it." Well, that doesn't help rich white people. It helps low-income minority communities disproportionately, and that is an inconvenient reality for the race hustlers pushing that narrative. Now on the fundamental corruption point, that you can just look at the data. This is one of the reasons why we titled the piece the way that it is. No matter how you slice it, this is not a common outcome of policing interactions.

Brian Anderson: The assumption you would get if you took the New York Times line on this is that these kinds of incidents are happening all over the country constantly. And that's just not the case.

Rafael Mangual: It's not the case at all. I mean, every single data analysis, I mean, just look at NYPD data. In 2021, the NYPD fielded 6.4 million calls for service. They made more than 166,000 arrests. They only recorded 5,000 uses of force, almost all of which were just forceful takedowns. Only 36 firearms discharges. Which means that if all of those discharges happened within the context of a separate arrest, you're talking about 0.02% of all arrests involving the uses of purposeful deadly force. And that's without disaggregating the unjustified uses of force from the justified uses of force.

And so when you're looking at the kinds of things that happen to Tyre Nichols, that is even rarer still. Again, that's not an excuse for it. It's not a reason even not to think about potential reforms to minimize the possibility of this happening in the future. But context is really everything here. And what we cannot allow the other side to do is to point to statistical anomalies and hold them up as representative of the institution simply because they can produce a handful of really terrible videos and examples every year. In a country of 330 million people, you’ll always have such examples.

Brian Anderson: Over a period of time. Yeah.

Rafael Mangual: And then the disappointment about the widespread mayhem, I kind of got that sense myself, but I suspect that the major reason why we didn't see the streets burn the way that we did in the wake of Ferguson or in the wake of George Floyd's murder, was that I think the public is having a hard time believing the race narrative here. And it really was the race narrative that lit the fire that burned almost uncontrollably after those prior incidents. And so I'm glad that we didn't see that happen. If there's another potential reason for why it didn't happen, I suspect that it has something to do with the fear of the public that stems from the recent crime spikes that came in the wake of those riots. I don't think it's a coincidence that after those riots, police activity went down and crime skyrocketed.

Brian Anderson: Now let's zoom out and just discuss the state of crime and policing more broadly. Apart from this horrific case, one might think that decarceration and opposition to the police would be unpopular political positions in what you just acknowledged as an environment where crime is surging again. But in this last election cycle in 2022, the results were fairly mixed. Some law-and-order candidates won, others lost, and at the same time, city and state governments, from Washington D.C. to Illinois, kept pushing ahead with criminal justice reforms that we've argued in City Journal, promise further laxity toward disorder and violence so that things could very easily get worse. So I wonder, what are some of the proposals that have been floating around to push this anti-policing agenda further, and what have we learned from this last election about their political viability?

Rafael Mangual: Yeah. Well, I think I'll start with the last question, which is, I think, what we learned about their political viability is that they are not the poison pills that even progressives thought they would be, right? I mean, for a really long time, the sort of dominant narrative within the sort of progressive criminal justice reform movement was that whatever wins were attained over the years were extremely fragile, and that at the first sight of a crime spike, people's appetite for reform would dissipate and the ball would be rolled back, and we'd go back to the sort of tough-on-crime days of the 1980s and ‘90s, and I think we've learned that that is just simply not true. To the extent that those statements were made in good faith, it reflects the serious underestimation of the momentum of the criminal justice reform movement, but I suspect it was really just kind of tactical in terms of making that case.

Now, in terms of recent kinds of reform activity that we've seen, despite the massive spike that we saw in serious violence in 2020, that was followed by a smaller spike in 2021, and crime kind of held relatively steady in 2022. Homicides and shootings decreased a little bit, but lots of other crime categories like robberies, burglaries, car thefts, all went up and went up significantly. Here in New York, I think we saw one of the single largest one-year increases in part one offenses, despite murder going down about 12 percent. But I mean, take Washington D.C., for example. They just overrode, I believe, the mayor's veto there to rewrite their criminal code, and the rewrite is pretty consequential. It is going to essentially do away with mandatory minimums. It is going to extend the right to a jury trial, even to misdemeanor cases with no new funding with which to carry out that mandate of course by design, because it's going to force the system to kind of triage—

Brian Anderson: These cases aren't worth prosecuting.

Rafael Mangual: Exactly. So they're going to quasi-legalize all kinds of misdemeanor conduct, and it's going to reduce the maximum penalties for various offenses, including burglary, robbery, and carjacking, which has been in the news a lot in the Washington D.C. area, because they've been on the rise. In Illinois, legislators moved forward and the governor signed the SAFE-T Act, which among other things was meant to eliminate cash bail. Now, there was a sort of last-minute court order that held the bail provisions up from going into effect, and the state Supreme Court is going to hear that argument soon. I suspect that the act will be upheld under the Illinois Constitution. It will go into effect at some point this year, but that's just the prediction of a lowly journalist. But the SAFE-T Act did do other things and included a bunch of police reforms. It gives the state attorney general more oversight over policing.

It allows complaints to be filed against police officers anonymously. Really just, I think the main takeaway here is that what we're seeing happen even after the crime spike is still unidirectional in nature. It is all pointing toward either lowering the transaction costs of breaking the law or raising the transaction costs of enforcing the law, and this is something that we're seeing in other parts of the country. Another example that I highlighted in the recent piece for you guys was the Oregon governor, essentially discontinuing executions in that state, and again, lowering the transaction cost to certain kinds of criminal conduct.

And so I think what this tells us is that the public needs to be much more engaged than it is. I think it's still very passive, and I suspect that that passivity is partly a function of fear of speaking out. I mean, for so long, so many people have been told that in order to be good, you have to be for this agenda because this agenda reflects social justice. It reflects racial justice, and who wants to be against that. And so it's going to take a while for the public to get up the courage to say, "Enough."

Brian Anderson: Yeah. Well, we've gone through this at various points in modern history. Looks like we're in the middle of one such cycle. One last question relates to another charge. I just saw an economist piece, for example, but it was typical of a number of articles I've read that quotes or that shows that American police wind up killing more people per capita than, say, Japanese police do, or Canadian police. I wonder what your view is on that. These pieces leave out the crime environment entirely, which seems to me a big missing piece.

Rafael Mangual: That is the, again, context is everything, and you just hit the nail on the head. That is precisely the context that's lacking in the presentation of figures like that. Of course, the killings by police per capita are going to be higher in the United States than in countries like Japan. A lot of that has to do with the fact that gun death per capita is significantly higher in the United States than it is in Japan. This is something that the same liberal police critics who make that argument, remember within the context of the gun control debate, right? I mean, they'll be the first people to tell you, well, the United States is an outlier on serious gun violence. Well, that's going to reflect itself in all kinds of enforcement outcomes, including police uses of force.

Brian Anderson: Well, thanks very much, Ralf. Don't forget to check out Rafael Mangual's work for the City Journal website, that's at www.city-journal.org. We’ve linked to his author page in the description. Again, he's the author of Criminal (In)Justice and this recent piece is, “Brutal but Atypical.” You should check it out. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal, and on Instagram @CityJournal_mi. As always, if you like what you've heard on today's 10 Blocks, please give us a ratings on iTunes. Thanks again, Ralf.

Rafael Mangual: Thank you.

Photo by Brad Vest/Getty Images

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