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"Defund the police" is dead as a doornail
It was never going to happen. So now that it failed, what comes next?
Back in June I wrote a post predicting that the “Defund the police” movement would lose popular support, due to the wave of violent crime and the fact that people know that police do deter violent crime. I was right. A new Pew survey shows that support for defunding the police is falling rapidly, and that support for increasing police funding has risen:
Nor is this just a function of Republicans, or White people, or old people getting freaked out by reports of crime on Fox News or Facebook. Among Democrats, Black people, and young people, the balance of opinion has shifted substantially in the direction of more police funding:
In fact, support for increasing police funding outweighs support for cutting police funding among Black Democrats and Hispanic Democrats even more than among White Democrats — though for all three, “increase” outweighs “decrease.
To be blunt, this means that “Defund the police” is dead. Stick a fork in it. Some cities will cut their police budget (especially if their tax revenues are doing really badly due to economic circumstances), but in general the police will not be defunded.
This was probably inevitable. The slogan was always one that required a tortuous exegesis to use in public — normal people aghast at the notion of abolishing the police had to be reassured that “defund” just meant shifting some police functions to unarmed responders, while activists had to be reassured that yes, the ultimate goal really was police abolition. In the end, the activists won, and everyone equated “defund” with “abolish”. And at that point it was a dead letter.
Why? Because everyone who doesn’t spend all their time shouting slogans to the contrary knows that police are incredibly important for curbing violent crime. I went over the basic evidence in my post back in June, and also cited surveys showing that criminologists agree. There’s much more than what I cited. In a balanced, thoughtful piece at Vox, German Lopez goes over some of that evidence, explains its limitations, and explains why it’s still pretty much a slam-dunk case that policing reduces violent crime in the short term.
Note those words: In the short term. It’s perfectly possible that better social policies, if we can pass them, will eventually reduce the root causes of crime so that we don’t need nearly as many police. But even if those policies can be passed, they will take decades to have their full effect. And Americans are not in a mood to suffer now while they wait for long-term solutions.
Because violent crime is exactly why Americans are becoming more pro-police. In 2020, murder skyrocketed in the U.S., rising more than half of the way back to the bad old days of the early 90s:
In both per capita terms and absolute numbers, this is the largest one-year rise in recorded American history. In absolute terms, murders are back to where they were in the 80s; in per capita terms, they’re more than halfway back. And it’s not over; alarmingly, murder has continued to rise in 2021. Murders are down in NYC, but up in Chicago and many other cities, even compared with last year.
That’s a public health emergency; thousands of young and otherwise healthy people, most of them from marginalized groups, are dying. And attempts by anti-police activists to dismiss this fall utterly flat. It obviously wasn’t due to Covid, since other countries didn’t experience similar surges. Nor should we take comfort in the fact that violent crime as a whole rose at a slower pace than the murder rate; other crimes are more subject to underreporting, both by victims and by the police themselves.
But don’t take my word for it regarding the importance of the violence wave. Listen to the American people:
So, there’s a wave of violence in America. Police reduce violence in the short term. Americans demand immediate solutions. Hence, we will not defund the police.
As I see it, there are two more salient questions here. First, what should sensible Democrats and progressives do about the activist fringe who still wants to defund the police? And second, how can we push actual police reform that has both a chance of getting passed and a chance of making Americans’ lives safer?
Activists and the progressive mainstream
The reason I was so unequivocal and forceful in the paragraphs above was that I don’t want to leave any doubt about where Democrats and progressives need to go on this issue. In progressive circles there is a tendency to “both-sides” topics like this, except one side is “most of the people in the country” and the other side is an activist fringe. Many progressives also express warmth toward the “defund the police” slogan even if they don’t actually believe it themselves, because they view it as a passionate expression of pro-justice sentiment by activists whose hearts are in the right place, and they want to honor that.
These are understandable impulses, but in this case the cost is just too great. Violent crime isn’t at the very top of Americans’ list of concerns, but it’s getting there, and the stakes of elections are high. GOP victories will severely damage the fight against climate change, efforts to help low-income families, government investment, and a host of other important initiatives. Jeopardizing this for the sake of a policy that will never happen is not worth it. But jeopardizing this for the sake of a policy that would be a disastrously bad policy if it ever did happen is far worse.
Of course, Biden already opposes defunding the police, and has always opposed it; in fact, he is trying to increase police funding to fight the crime wave. That doesn’t matter to Republicans, of course, who are falsely claiming that Biden wants to defund, and will continue to utter such false claims no matter what he or any other Democrat does. Meanwhile, some elected Democrats did support the “defund” movement very strongly back in 2021, and although they’re being quiet about it now, that doesn’t mean they’ve repudiated it. Which makes it all the more important that Dems insist that “defund” is not a mainstream party position.
And when I say “Dems”, I don’t just mean elected officials. Like it or not, the age of social media means that movements and even parties are judged not simply based on what their leaders say and do, but on what happens on Twitter and Facebook. So regular progressives who care about both winning elections and about saving the movement from the clutches of bad ideas should make sure not to boost pro-”defund” messaging online.
But simply ignoring the issue isn’t good either, because America really does have a long-term policing problem, and we really do need to solve it.
Real police reform
U.S. local police forces are a troubled and dysfunctional institution. Hardened by years of a “warrior” mentality, given far less training than their European counterparts, and protected by strong unions and a culture of solidarity and silence, they have grown unaccountable and violent. This interacts with racism in ways that go beyond simple discrimination at traffic stops or policies like stop & frisk. Police often treat Black communities as no-go zones where laws are not enforced, focusing instead on hyper-scrutiny of Black people’s behavior outside of these neighborhoods. This containment-based approach is sometimes called “bluelining”:
This approach leads to Black neighborhoods being simultaneously overpoliced and underpoliced — a complex problem that defies simple slogans. Ultimately, this policing strategy leads to higher crime, as trust in police within Black communities drops and people take their security into their own hands.
There’s no simple one-sentence solution to this problem, but here are some things U.S. cities can do to change the way policing works while also putting a priority on Americans’ sense of security.
1) Professionalize the police
Here, via the BBC, is a chart of how much training cops receive in various rich countries:
Simply making policing a much more professional job, with greatly increased training requirements, would go a long way toward changing the composition of police forces toward people who are less likely to use inappropriate force and more likely to take an intelligent, thoughtful approach toward the communities they police.
Note that this will almost certainly require increasing police funding.
2) More detectives
As everyone knows, police very rarely stop a crime in progress. They reduce crime by three methods: 1) deterring crime in public spaces, 2) physically removing violent people and putting them in jail, and 3) deterring crime by making it clear that criminals will get caught.
When it comes to the last of these — which is probably also the most important — America’s police are failing horribly. Clearance for murder, the most terrible of all crimes, are only around 60%, and lower for other violent crimes. In Chicago, it’s more like 12%. This means that people are highly likely to literally get away with murder. That obviously makes murder a more attractive option for would-be murderers, but it also means that normal non-murderous people have to rely on themselves, rather than the cops, for safety and justice. That means they have to get a gun and cultivate a reputation for toughness, both of which increase the likelihood that they’ll kill someone.
This is the result of bluelining. The solution is to hire a lot more detectives. Detectives actually solve crimes, enabling the punishment of perpetrators. Over time, this pacifies society, as people learn that they can rely on a just and caring government for their security.
Note that this will almost certainly require increasing police funding.
3) Demilitarize the police
Police violence has increased markedly in America since the start of the War on Terror. One possible reason is that cops have gotten a hold of a lot of military surplus equipment, and decked themselves out like soldiers. Giving the cops military equipment is unnecessary, and it places a psychological barrier between them and the communities they police — instead of being reminded that they’re there to protect and serve, cops are psychologically told that they’re soldiers in a war against those same communities. And the members of the communities doubtless feel the same.
Banning military-style equipment and uniforms would be a cheap, easy measure to place police back in their proper role as public servants — a return to the “boys in blue” image of the 80s and 90s. This can be done at the federal level, too.
4) Real community policing
Police need to do more foot patrols in violent neighborhoods. Of course cops would probably rather cruise around in the safety of their cars, but what police want is not always the same as what the community needs. This is proven to reduce crime. Walking around in high-risk communities can also create positive interactions between cops and community members, which in turn increases general trust in the cops.
Another approach, which Lopez covers in his article, is called “problem-oriented policing”. This involves police going into high-risk communities even when no crime has been committed, to try to work with community members to address ongoing chronic violence. Evidence is also encouraging. There’s also some evidence in favor of a related strategy called “focused deterrence”.
What all of these strategies have in common is that they’re alternatives to bluelining. They involve police working with communities instead of against them — serving and protecting instead of containing. Shifting cops from their current traffic stop-centric approach to hot-spot patrols, problem-oriented policing, and focused deterrence — which are all just specific implementations of what we used to call “community policing” — would go a long way toward solving the “simultaneous overpolicing and underpolicing” problem.
And note that like some of the other strategies above, this will probably involve increasing police funding.
5) Mental health responders
A lot of the people who get the cops called on them aren’t dangerous — they’re just having mental problems. This is especially true in my city of San Francisco. Calling the cops on people with mental problems just increases the chance of violence, as well as the neighbors’ feeling that they live in a violent area. And cops are just not trained to handle people’s mental breakdowns; that’s not what police should specialize in. So many cities are experimenting, often quite successfully, with having mental health professionals respond to 9-1-1 calls in place of the cops. More such experiments are needed.
Note that this is the one proposal that actually kinda-sorta does fit the most general, loose definition of “defunding the police”. But for the sake of the whole country, let’s not call it that.
I’ve seen this movie before…
America is a violent nation, and that violence is always one of Americans’ chief concerns. When progressives seem like they don’t care about this perennial concern, conservatives win. When I was a child, I watched Democrats — specifically, Joe Biden — defuse decades of Republican “soft on crime” rhetoric with vast expansion of cops on the street. That triangulation — and the drop in violence in the subsequent years — took crime mostly off the table as a wedge issue, and probably helped U.S. culture grow more tolerant and progressive in the decades that followed. But it came at a price — those vastly expanded police departments are the same ones that became militarized and violent in later decades, and the same ones that activists are now calling on us to defund.
If we want to prevent a repeat of this history — a decade or more of conservative backlash followed by a messy and costly process of Democratic triangulation — we need to act fast. We need to refuse to tolerate the “defund the police” slogan, ignore the demands of the strident activists, and aggressively and vocally embrace smart policing solutions like the ones detailed above.