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Perception is reality, so education is critical

By Scott Tibbs, May 13, 2015

When it comes to politics, the reality we all face is that perception is reality. No matter how right you are on the facts, and no matter how well your argument is constructed, you have to deal with the voters where they are, not where they should be. This is why it is critical to never stop teaching voters about facts and policy, and (like it or not) this is something advocates of criminal justice reform have to deal with.

With that said, here are three very informative bits from Radley Balko's blog post last week:

About half as many cops are killed on the job today as in 1968, despite the fact that there are significantly more cops on the street. So far this year, 10 U.S. police officers have been killed by gunfire. That puts us on pace for 29 by the end of the year. That would be the lowest raw number in well more than half a century. And again, once you factor in the increase in the number of cops overall, the drop in the homicide rate among cops is even more dramatic.


The crime rate was much higher in 1968 than it is today. Here's a mind-blowing statistic: There were 500 fewer overall murders in 2013 than there were in 1969, despite the fact that the population increased by 115 million people.


In 2013, there were nearly 9,000 fewer homicides, about 27,000 fewer rapes, and about 368,000 fewer aggravated assaults than there were in 1991, even though the country's population increased by 64 million people.

These are the kind of statistics that criminal justice reformers need to keep repeating, as often as is necessary to educate the public about the reality of crime in America. Even as crime has fallen, we have continued our "tough on crime" policies, and the use of paramilitary SWAT raids continues to increase even on nonviolent suspects. Even regulatory agencies are employing SWAT teams to enforce code, which sounds like it should be in an absurd parody movie, not reality.

Balko expresses frustration that two pundits critical of Hillary Clinton are only engaged in political analysis instead of dealing with the facts, and that is a reasonable criticism. It is irresponsible for a journalist to deal only with perception when that perception does not match reality.

But whether we like it or not, in politics perception is reality. This is why voter education is important. The statistics about the falling crime rate need to be pounded over and over and over so it is inescapable in order to combat the sensationalistic "if it bleeds, it leads" focus of the news media (especially TV news) as it covers violent crime. Because these statistics are not "sexy," they need to be hammered home all the more.

That said, I think Balko overstates his case when he describes policies that disproportionately harm blacks as "racist" in areas governed by blacks. Merriam-Webster defines racism as "poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race" or "the belief that some races of people are better than others." I cannot imagine the black leadership of Baltimore are intentionally harming blacks. It strains credulity to describe it as such.

But bad policy is bad policy. We do not need to attach a loaded word like "racism" to bad policy to explain why it is bad policy. We simply need to explain why that bad policy is causing a great deal of harm without getting much in the way of positive results, and that there are alternative ways to solve problems without the negative externalities caused by the current "tough on crime" mentality. Using a loaded word like "racism" is unnecessarily divisive and creates a left/right debate that is a needless distraction.

We have a lot of work to do in order to roll back the abuses of the War on Crime and the War on Drugs, and there is a bipartisan coalition of Republicans and Democrats ready to work toward that goal. (I would be remiss if I didn't point out that those Democrats and Republicans have just recently caught up to where the Libertarians were decades ago.) There is also bipartisan resistance to reform, as the current leviathan is a bipartisan creation. Let's not blow this opportunity by making it a left vs. right or a Republican vs. Democrat issue.