Sen. Ted Cruz spent his Tuesday afternoon overseeing a hearing about a problem that doesn’t really exist—at least, not beyond the confines of his campaign talking points.
The hearing, dubbed “The War on Police: How the Federal Government Undermines State and Local Law Enforcement,” covered everything from whether the feds should make school locker rooms accommodate trans students to whether Obama’s rhetoric on criminal justice reform is destroying civilization (spoiler: yes).
This isn’t new territory—in fact, Cruz pushes the perils of the U.S. government’s war against cops when he hits the campaign trail and when he does interviews touting his presidential bid.
And now, he’s taken the spiel to the Senate, arguing for the existence of a mythological anti-cop war from his perch in (cough) the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body.
And while it was just one more example of a presidential candidate using an official platform to further his electoral ambitions—it had one major hiccup: Much of the fear-mongering that Cruz peddled isn’t really based in fact. As in, at all.
The basic premise of the hearing, as its title suggested, was that Obama administration activities have made cops’ jobs more dangerous, causing a spike in violent crime.
“I do not believe it is beneficial for this country to have a culture where the men and women of law enforcement feel under siege,” Cruz said at the hearing’s outset, starting the event with characteristic understatement and reserve.
“What on earth are we doing when senior government officials are treating police officers as the bad guys?” he added.
This, of course, wasn’t the first time Cruz has suggested Obama has cops’ blood on his hands; in August on the campaign trail, he suggested the president bears responsibility for the murder of a Texas sheriff’s deputy. He also contended that Obama’s responses to the killings by police of unarmed black men in Baltimore and Ferguson is “endangering all of our security.”
And on a Texas radio station, Cruz said Obama’s silence on the deputy’s killing was a “manifestation of the divisiveness, the partisanship and of the hostility to law enforcement that has characterized the entire Obama administration.”
Never mind that, as The Washington Post noted, the president called the deputy’s widow and issued a statement on his killing the day before.
Tuesday’s hearing picked up where Cruz’s campaign rhetoric left off. The Texan pressed Vanita Gupta, who heads the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, on why they didn’t fire trial attorney Karla Dobinski for posting anonymous Internet comments in 2011 that criticized a police officer who was on trial (a federal judge called her posts “a wanton reckless course of action”). Sen. Mike Lee—Cruz’s ever-faithful sidekick—asked her a series of questions about a school that wanted a trans student to change behind a privacy curtain instead of in an open locker room area with other girls. Because War on Cops!
Once they moved past anonymous Internet comments and open locker rooms, the discussion turned to the so-called “war on police.”
A Cruz dialogue with witness Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute produced a number of interesting points.
“Crime is now spiking across the country,” she said, citing crime statistics in New York City—a city that makes its own policing policies and has nothing to do with Obama.
“The president’s delegitimization of law enforcement is irresponsible,” she added, saying that the perception that some cops are racist will make suspects resist arrest, which will lead to a veritable death spiral of crime and violence.
“It also threatens the very legitimacy of law and order itself, which puts our very civilization at risk,” she added.
Then Cruz and Mac Donald discussed the existence of a purported Ferguson Effect—the theory that since the killing of Michael Brown, police have become afraid of doing their jobs properly because they fear people will videotape them and they will be criticized.
Now, it’s worth noting here that the idea that there’s a Ferguson effect is pretty pernicious.
“What is the message to communities of color by this quote-unquote Ferguson Effect?” said Jeffery Robinson, deputy legal director of the ACLU. “What it’s saying is, shut the hell up, stop complaining about police using unnecessary force in your communities, stop complaining about being treated in degrading and humiliating ways by some police officers, and stop complaining about the police killing unarmed men of color—and if you don’t stop complaining, we won’t protect you.”
And even though the high-profile killings of a few police officers have nabbed national headlines and become political footballs, this year is on pace to be one of the safest for American police officers—ever. That’s according to a paper from the conservative American Enterprise Institute, titled “Is there really a ‘war on cops’? The data show that 2015 will likely be one of the safest years in history for police.”
Still, in October, FBI Director James Comey told students at the University of Chicago Law School that there is “a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year, and that wind is surely changing behavior.”
While homicide rates have gone up in some U.S. cities, it’s too soon to tell whether that has anything to do with a cowed police force. The FBI only releases its Uniform Crime Report on a yearly basis, and it didn’t release the 2014 numbers until Sept. 28, 2015. Experts say that report is the best—and, arguably, only—reliable source of data on nationwide crime trends (and some argue the FBI should release the data quarterly or monthly so debates like these can actually be based on facts). As long as that report isn’t out, it’s extraordinarily difficult to say reality-based things about whether or not there’s a national crime spike.
President Obama cast aspersions at Comey later that month when he spoke to the International Association of Chiefs of Police in the same city.
“We do have to stick with the facts,” he said. “What we can't do is cherry-pick data or use anecdotal evidence to drive policy or to feed political agendas.”
Obama’s criticism of Comey left Cruz incensed; he asked Mac Donald what she made of Obama “impugning the integrity and the veracity of the director of the FBI that he appointed, simply for having the temerity to speak the truth about the rising murder rates and crime rates we are seeing in large cities across this country?”
Mac Donald, predictably, was not pleased with the president’s comments, attributing his call for more data to his excessively ideological agenda.
As noted, precious little data exists to suggest that the Obama administration is prosecuting a war on police officers—or at least, prosecuting a successful one. One data point Mac Donald cited to undergird her claims of a massive national crime wave came from the site FiveThirtyEight. That site crunched numbers in September and concluded that, according to year-to-date data on the country’s 60 biggest cities, homicide rates are up 16 percent compared to last year.
If anything, this data suggests that a host of different factors are impacting violent crime rates in different cities. And its authors noted that the 16 percent uptick “doesn’t come close to reversing the long-term decline in homicides.”
That data shows that while some individual cities have seen startling spikes in homicides, others have seen dramatic drops. The war on cops seems to be a lost cause in Boston, for instance, where the number of homicides dropped by 43 percent, or in Wichita, Kansas, where the numbers of people murdered in 2014 and 2015 were exactly the same.
None of that has stopped Cruz from making a supposed War on Police a central part of his campaign messaging. And it hasn’t stopped him from using his perch in the Senate to augment that message—data be damned.