The death of George Floyd, an African American, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer has sparked weeks of urban protests, but also fierce condemnations of President Donald Trump. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio partly blamed the president for the unrest, noting “there’s been an uptick in tension and hatred and division since he came along.”
Less anger, though, was directed at Minneapolis’ political establishment. The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (a merger of Minnesota’s Democrats and the state’s Farmer-Labor Party) has run the city since 1975. Instead, the New York Times ran a mild piece observing that, for Democratic leaders of Minneapolis and other cities, the violent events were “testing their campaign promises and principles.”
Floyd’s death was the latest in a series of disturbing incidents that have fed a growing belief among African Americans that they’re a target of abusive cops. For many, today’s tragic events evoke the experiences of the 1960s, when blacks who had moved into Northern cities clashed with hostile police departments, setting off similar riots.
What is striking is that the principal controversies then and now largely revolved around police departments in Democrat-controlled cities, with a few notable exceptions, like Ferguson, Mo. Despite decades of promises of reform, these cities — Baltimore, Chicago, and Minneapolis are notable recent cases — continue to struggle with relations between the police and minority communities. The media rarely acknowledge this failing of the party, and it seems to evoke little self-reflection among urban Democrats themselves.
The Democratic Party of the 1960s was principally a blue-collar political movement. It dominated Northeastern and Midwestern cities through powerful local political machines dispensing patronage to supporters — including plum positions in police departments. Corruption was endemic, and it often occurred at the expense of black residents.
Those conditions set the stage for some of the most explosive riots of that period, including in Newark in July of 1967 over the arrest of a black cabdriver. Protests swiftly turned violent, lasting four days and costing 26 lives. Investigations uncovered widespread corruption. The city’s police department was tied to organized crime; mob bosses had helped pick the police commissioner, a man widely disliked in the black community.
Newark saw one of more than 150 riots that summer, which brought sweeping political changes, including the election of a generation of new black Democratic leaders. But policing remained a glaring problem. In Detroit, voters elected radical labor organizer Coleman Young, an African American, as mayor in 1974. He went to war with his own police department, slashing its ranks by 20% and installing a black police commissioner, with instructions to reduce enforcement in the city. Crime exploded in Detroit, and in most American urban areas; as middle-class residents, predominantly white, left for safer suburbs, poorer blacks, living in increasingly dangerous city neighborhoods, were the biggest victims.
The story only changed when a few criminologists, led by the Manhattan Institute’s George Kelling, and visionary police leaders, like William J. Bratton, began to advocate for community-based policing, including enforcement of quality-of-life offenses, and the deployment of more sophisticated data to target crime hot spots, to bring order back to urban neighborhoods. After Bratton became New York’s police chief in 1994, crime started to fall dramatically — including violent felonies, which fell by 70%.
Key indicators of police misconduct also declined. In 1991, at the peak of the city’s crime wave, officers discharged their guns 307 times. Ten years ago, in a much safer city, police fired their guns fewer than 100 times — and last year, they did so just 52 times, representing a greater than 80% decline from 1991.
Still, about a decade ago, a narrative reemerged in America that police departments are deeply racist and single out minority residents disproportionately. America had just elected its first black president, which might have signaled that the country’s racist past was firmly behind it — certainly in the sense of systemic or institutional racism. And yet, with Barack Obama in the White House, individual conflicts between the police and African Americans became amplified, at times by the president himself. Speaking about the case of Eric Garner, a New Yorker arrested for selling contraband cigarettes who died in police custody, Obama said that the incident spoke to “larger issues that we’ve been talking about now for the last week, the last month, the last year, and, sadly, for decades, and that is the concern on the part of too many minority communities that law enforcement is not working with them and dealing with them in a fair way.”
It’s clear that many African Americans believed this narrative of the Obama years. So why did so little change under a Democratic president, and in typically Democratic-run cities? The answers might lie in looking closely at some of the most egregious confrontations that occurred in blue cities over the last few years.
In October 2014, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was shot at least 16 times by a police officer on a Chicago street and killed. Initial reports claimed that he was walking erratically down the street, carried a knife, and lunged at the police. Testimony from witnesses and other evidence, however, cast doubt on the official version of events. The city turned down numerous requests to release video of the incident, which took place in the middle of a difficult reelection campaign for then-mayor Rahm Emanuel, who eventually won a runoff for a second term in April 2015. Eventually the videos, released to public, showed that McDonald was walking away from the cop when shot. The release provoked widespread protests, and the officer was eventually convicted of second-degree murder.
Emanuel refused calls to resign. While Chicago, governed by Democrats since 1931, made some police reforms, such as providing officers with tasers as an alternate to guns, no sweeping reforms took place. Current Mayor Lori Lightfoot ran for mayor three years later, promising that she would finish the job of reform. But when murders spiked in the city, she resorted to some of the same strategies that Emanuel was criticized for, including flooding crime-plagued neighborhoods with extra cops.
The Minneapolis Police Department, meanwhile, hired a black police chief in 2017, and he pledged to institute broad reforms, but faced resistance from the powerful police union, which has stymied efforts to discipline and suspend officers accused of misconduct. Robert Olson, former chief of police in Minneapolis, told Reuters two years ago that the problem was concessions the city makes to the union which make it difficult to fire workers. “We’re talking about incremental changes in contracts over years that cumulatively … makes it far more difficult for chiefs to sustain discipline.”
Speaking on TV recently, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden promised, if elected, to make police brutality a key issue for his administration. It was the latest in a long line of promises by leading Democrats to address what they see as police misconduct toward African Americans. One wonders when they will be called to account for their repeated failures to do something about it.
Steven Malanga is the George M. Yeager Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the senior editor of City Journal, from which this was adapted.