A San Francisco police station found itself at the center of controversy last week for posting an op-ed about policing on an internal bulletin board. I was the author of that op-ed, “The Myths of Black Lives Matter,” published on Feb. 12 in the Wall Street Journal. My article presented data about police shootings that challenged the Black Lives Matter narrative that racist killer cops are the biggest threat facing young black men today.
A story in the San Francisco Examiner questioned whether the presence of the op-ed within the police station violated San Francisco Police Department rules against political activity in public buildings. That suggestion is groundless. SFPD policy states that:
“Members shall not, while on duty or while acting as a representative of the Department, endorse political candidates or issues or participate in political campaigns. Members shall not place or cause to be placed politically oriented information in or on any Department building or equipment other than upon the bulletin board provided for the posting of general notices.”
This rule may not be a model of linguistic precision, but it is clearly intended to prohibit departmental members from engaging in political electioneering. It bans the endorsement of candidates and the participation in campaigns, consistent with the American tradition that government agencies should stay out of election politicking.
My op-ed was not part of a political campaign, and the Taraval Station was not endorsing a candidate or participating in a campaign by posting the op-ed. Instead, the op-ed was an effort to inject additional facts into the public debate about policing. Working with newly disclosed information from the Washington Post’s police shootings database, I noted that fatal police shootings make up a much higher proportion of white and Hispanic homicide deaths than black homicide deaths. Twelve percent of all white and Hispanic homicide deaths are from officer-involved shootings, compared to four percent of black homicide deaths. Blacks are at a lower risk of dying from police gunfire, relative to their overall death by homicide risk, than whites and Hispanics are, because of the vastly disproportionate number of black homicide deaths (6,095 in 2014) compared to white and Hispanic homicide deaths (5,397 in 2014). Nearly all those black homicide victims had black killers. Moreover, police officers are 2½ times more likely to be killed by a black male than a black male is to be killed by a police officer. Contrary to the Black Lives Matter conceit that white officers are especially prone to shooting blacks out of racial bias, available evidence suggests that black officers more often than white officers mistakenly think that an unarmed black civilian is armed, and are more likely to fire their weapons. The piece concluded by noting that dozens of innocent black children were gunned down in drive-by shootings last year, though few people outside of their families and immediate community know their name, in stark contrast to Michael Brown.
Citizens do not lose their First Amendment rights when they work for the government. My op-ed presented facts regarding an issue of public concern, and did not compromise officers’ ability to do their job; it thus fell well within the ambit of constitutionally protected workplace speech. Nothing in California law bans such postings from police stations. If my op-ed is impermissible, then so would be many newspaper articles, including from the Examiner. Such a policy would curtail officers’ ability to inform themselves about matters of public and professional import.
Had the Taraval Station posted an op-ed arguing that American policing suffers from systemic racism, the Examiner would not likely have questioned the legality of its posting. Certainly, police training must constantly seek to minimize officer use of force and to make sure that officers treat everyone they encounter with courtesy and respect. Every unjustified police shooting is an unmitigated tragedy. Arguably, the problem with the Wall Street Journal op-ed, however, was not that it somehow related to a “political campaign,” but that it violated the media’s received narrative about policing.
Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of the forthcoming “The War on Cops.”