by James A. Bacon
State Attorney General Mark R. Herring has launched a statewide initiative that has garnered less press attention than it probably warrants: an “equal justice” program that includes “implicit bias” training for police officers, updating of academy training materials, minority officer recruitment, and improving interactions between law enforcement and young people.
The rollout comes against the backdrop of police killings of unarmed black men in various locations around the country and retaliatory killings of police in Texas. Once can argue whether policing is as discriminatory against African-Americans as portrayed by the Black Lives Matter movement and the media. Police kill twice as many whites as blacks, after all, even though such incidents receive minimal media attention. But as Herring emphasizes:
Here in Virginia, I think most of us, if probably not all of us, agree on two goals: No. 1, we want to make sure law enforcement can safely and effectively protect our communities, and we want to make sure everybody is treated equally and fairly. There are two goals I think we can all agree on, and they are not in conflict with one another. And I would submit we have to get them both right if we’re really going to have the safe, successful communities we want.
I certainly share those two goals. Insofar as the criminal justice system is stacked against minorities, we need to reform it. The question comes down to implementation. In striving for “equal justice” for minorities, do we sacrifice community safety? When we ask that question, let us bear in mind that any diminution of safety will come mainly at the expense of minorities, thus creating a new form of injustice.
I have no settled opinions on Herring’s main initiatives. In the abstract, they are appealing. Yes, policemen should be devoid of ethnic/racial bias. Yes, we should have more minority policemen, particularly African-Americans, to patrol African-American neighborhoods. Yes, police should work harder to build trust with the communities they work in.
On the other hand, also in theory, it may be possible for police to get too touchie-feelie in their dealings with the criminal element, thus giving bad guys more leeway to do their bad-guy thing. We have seen in cities from Baltimore to Chicago what happens when police back off — the murder rate goes up.
As a conservative who believes that the maintenance of “law and order” is the most fundamental function of government, I say let’s wish Herring well with his initiatives to make Virginia safer and to create color-blind policing. But let us also pay very close attention to the results. The number of “violent” crimes in Virginia peaked at 24,160 in 1993. The number declined consistently thereafter to 15,676 in 2012, before bumping back up to 16,340 in 2014, according to DisasterCenter.com. I’ll be watching.