BY Dustin GuastellaJuly 9, 2020
BY Dustin GuastellaJuly 9, 2020
One unfortunate thing about “Black Power” is that it gives priority to race prejudice at a time when the impact of automation and other forces have made the economic question fundamental for blacks and whites alike.
—Martin Luther King, Jr.
Demands to defund, dismantle, or even abolish police departments have leapt from the bullhorns of protesters, to the pages of the New York Times and even into the policy platforms of national Democratic Party figures. The demand, and the protest activity behind it, are informed by an assumption that the use of deadly force by the police is a fundamental and foundational part of policing. In this view, reforming the police is impossible. The only way to reduce the use of lethal force, argues Mariame Kaba, is to reduce policing itself: she advocates cutting the number of police officers in half nationwide.1
Much of the popular narrative also assumes that the primary cause of police violence is simple and readily apparent: racism. It is true that black Americans are far more likely to be shot and killed by the police than white Americans. And it is true that racial prejudice held by police officers plays a role. Yet to address the problem of police violence, we need to understand the scope, magnitude, and patterns of the problem. This requires a much wider lens than the focus on racism allows.
I fear many are getting the conversation around policing entirely wrong. And if mistaken analysis leads to bad policy, the results could be fatal. Starting with the proposition that that racism is intrinsic to policing, it may seem intuitive that reducing the footprint of the police would reduce the prevalence of police brutality – and especially the use of lethal force. Less cops, less cop violence. Yet a sober look at the evidence suggests otherwise. To get the politics of policing right we need to understand what drives the problem of police lethality in the first place.
The Police Kill the Poor
The racial disparities in police killings are almost always the first statistics marshalled in defense of calls to abolish, dismantle or defund the police. But the focus on racial disparities can confuse as much as it clarifies. Consider the oft quoted statistic that black Americans make up 24% of the victims of police killings despite only accounting for 13% of the population.2 Without context, this suggests that black Americans are indiscriminately murdered by the police, regardless of where they fall on the ladder of economic inequality or even where they live.
Jeff Bezos recently quipped: “I have a 20-year-old son, and I simply don’t worry that he might be choked to death while being detained one day. […] Black parents can’t say the same.” Are we to believe that the reason the Bezos children are not likely to be killed by the police is because they were born white, or might being the children of the world’s wealthiest man have something to do with it? Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier has declared that George Floyd “could have been me,” but do we really think that black multimillionaires are more likely to be murdered by the police than poor whites?3 In truth, this corporate brand of anti-racism—now present in the statements of major multinational companies, featured on the splash pages of all major streaming services, and prominent in most national papers—has sought to make invisible the most significant features of American society linked to police violence: inequality and austerity.
Though we don’t have comparable statistics at the individual level, there is much evidence to suggest a startling disparity in the pattern of police violence by class. According to one analysis, a person in the poorest quintile of census tracts is 3.5 times more likely to be killed by the police than a person in the wealthiest quintile. Of all the police killings in the United States about 60% take place in census tracts falling in the two quintiles with the highest levels of poverty – despite these tracts accounting for only 39% of the population. A full 35% of all police killings occurred in the census tract quintile with the highest concentration of poverty.4
And because this data is based on the place of killing, rather than the identity or residence of the victim, these numbers are very likely underselling the degree to which the poor suffer from police brutality. For instance, it is almost certainly true that many of the individuals killed by the police in relatively wealthy census tracts were themselves poor. Consider that in the real-world, patrolling relatively wealthy neighborhoods, like Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, consists of haranguing any ‘trespassers’ from neighboring high-poverty areas like Red Hook.
The truth is police lethality is a problem almost exclusively experienced by the poor. And when we limit our analysis to this population alone we see that racial disparities in police killings are greatly diminished.5 In one study, Roland Fryer Jr. found that (despite robust evidence for racial discrimination, and startling disparities in the frequency and use of force) there was no statistically significant racial disparity in the use of lethal force.6 A 2019 study provided further confirmation, finding “no overall evidence of anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparities in fatal shootings.” 7
Of course, a lack of racial disparities does not mean a lack of racism, it could be the case that the use of lethal force for one group is driven by prejudice, while for others it is driven by different factors. But then, the inverse is also true: the presence of a racial disparity does not mean that racism is the cause. In reality poverty is driving much more of the story than CEOs like Bezos and Frazier would like to admit. While it no longer surprises people to learn that black Americans are 24% of the total victims of police murder, it might surprise many that they also make up 23% of the total population living under the poverty line in this country. And while white Americans make up around 41% of the poor, they actually account for 46% of the victims of police killings. The takeaway here is that the racial breakdown of those killed by the police almost exactly matches the racial demography of the poor.
None of these facts excuse the problem of racism in American police departments. Yet racial prejudice cannot explain why white Americans are so much more likely to be killed by the police than Europeans of any race. Nor can racism effectively explain why police lethality is greatest in the states with the smallest black populations.8 Solving the problem of violent policing in America requires recognizing these complex dynamics and tailoring solutions that address the political and economic foundations which gave rise to it in the first place. Yet no such approach is apparent in the contemporary calls to abolish, dismantle, or defund the police. In fact, the evidence suggests that “defunding” police departments and cutting the number of officers is among the worst solutions, indeed it may even exacerbate brutality.
A comparison between Philadelphia and Phoenix might help illustrate the complexity of American police violence. The two cities are roughly the same size and capture roughly the same level of GDP, but this is where the similarities end. Philadelphia is about 44% black, whereas Phoenix is only 7% black. The City of Brotherly Love is among the poorest cities in the country, with nearly 26% of the population living in poverty; while Phoenix is also very poor, only 18% of its residents suffer under the crush of want. Notably, Philadelphia has about 42 police officers per 10,000 residents, compared to 17 per 10,000 in Phoenix.
Given the prevailing narratives, we should expect that Philly would be a hotbed of police lethality: after all, it’s a poor black city with lots of cops and an allegedly bloated police budget. But the truth is that in Phoenix, an average of 11.0 people are killed by police each year, while in Philadelphia that number is just 3.1. Phoenix, then, with less than half the number of police officers as Philadelphia, has 3.5 times the rate of police killings.9
Once you start to look, such apparently surprising results become visible all over the map. Montana is a very rural and overwhelmingly white state, with a relatively small police presence—just 17 police officers per 10,000 residents—but it is rife with police violence. Montanans are 1.4 times more likely to be killed by the police than Georgians, a state whose population is 30% black, and which employs 27 police officers per 10,000 residents.
Similarly, West Virginia, another lily-white state with relatively few police officers (just 14.9 per 10,000 residents), has a major problem with police killings. Its average rate is over 2.5 times as high as its more diverse and wealthier neighbor, Virginia, which employs 21.5 officers per 10,000 residents.10
These comparisons are not outliers: if we go down the list of cities and states that top the charts in police violence, we see a striking pattern: fewer officers often correlates with greater police lethality. If the examples here are any indication, cutting the number of police officers in half nationwide could result in a three-fold increase in police killings in some areas.
Police lethality also happens to be concentrated in states with lax gun laws; among populations with easy access to cheap weapons. Western and Mountain region states have nearly triple the rate of police murders compared to Northeastern states.11 It seems, then, that in areas with easy access to guns, high levels of poverty, and few police, the cops kill more people. This is no less true for mostly white cities like Colorado Springs or Spokane, than it is for majority-minority cities like Los Angeles or Stockton. Further, as police lethality in cities has decreased by an average rate of 5.32% per year over the past six years, just the opposite has happened in rural areas, which have witnessed an increase in incidences of police lethality by a nearly identical average rate of 5.14% per year.
Convincing causal explanations for the patterns and trends described here are available, but they require us to question the analysis and solutions offered by activists. Defunding police budgets, far from a solution, could in fact be one of the major causes of police violence. Cash-strapped departments seem to have both fewer officers overall and more incidences of the use of lethal force. This makes some sense. Firstly, the lack of cash in a given department is usually an expression of the level of poverty in the district they serve and, as we’ve seen, cops tend to shoot, choke, and kill poor people. But a more direct relationship is also evident: municipal austerity affects police behavior. Fewer cops means longer hours and shrinking budgets means lower pay. The result is overworked and underqualified officers.12
Returning to Phoenix, a 2015 study found that when officers were expected to work 13 hour and 20 minute shifts, as opposed to 10 hours, their work performance significantly declined.13 And a similar study in 2018 showed that police fatigue resulted in more citizen complaints about police behavior.14 Everyone acknowledges that medical professionals—nurses, surgeons, and EMT’s—are more likely to make life threatening mistakes when they are overworked, though no one would advocate cutting hospital budgets as a solution to fatigue.
A lack of funds also means lack of training and accountability. Consider the situation in Dolton, Illinois. This small Chicago suburb is home to a particularly violent police force. However, the trouble with reforming the department has been attributed to an inability to spend money on training and hiring qualified officers. Disgraced officers from larger urban districts often find their way to places like Dolton where their formal experience and their willingness to work for less make them attractive recruits. So, in the rare event that officers are disciplined for their behavior, violent cops tend to bounce around underfunded departments. In another Chicagoland example, Robbins, Illinois pays an all part-time force $10.50 an hour—similar wages were found in Ferguson, Missouri’s department in 2015.15 Low wages in policing are hardly a rare occurrence, across the country officers are expected to work for less and do more. It doesn’t take a social scientist to predict what might happen when you combine poverty wages with a job that requires you to carry a gun. In much of America we pay police officers McDonald’s wages to patrol Walmart’s workforce.
Austerity Allocations Aren’t Enough
All of this is to say that we cannot solve the problem of police violence by avoiding the problem of poverty. Yet this is exactly what the “defund” solution threatens to do. In a remarkable twist, liberal militants have embraced austerity as a solution for local government. Slashing police budgets has been so widely accepted on the Left that criticism of it—on welfarist grounds, policy implementation, or simple political commonsense—has been labeled reactionary or racist. The reality, as I have tried to show, is that if defunding the police were to result in fewer beat cops, more poverty wages for officers in already poor districts, less police training and effectively no change in the presence of guns or the rate of poverty, then the defunding “solution”—for all its radical rhetoric—would likely result in more, not fewer, incidences of police lethality. We cannot be afraid to say what is true: defunding the police is wrong because it will result in more people dying.
The response to this charge might be to claim that we could reallocate municipal funds to other social goods and offset the need for policing altogether. Yet slashing police budgets to zero would do almost nothing to stem the tide of municipal bankruptcies and solve the public funding crisis. That’s because, as Adaner Usmani and John Clegg have shown, it’s significantly cheaper to police the problems associated with joblessness and poverty than to solve them.16 Many activists point to what seem like high dollar amounts for police budgets as evidence that money could be better spread around. Instead of demanding that the federal government tax the wealthy and their corporations to fund public goods and eliminate joblessness, activists seem to believe that city governments have no choice but to rob Peter to pay Paul. Though if we took the $150 million Los Angeles recently cut from their police budget and redirected it to housing stipends for the entire poverty population, it would buy everyone no more than a couple weeks’ rent in LA’s cheapest neighborhoods.
Indeed, when looking at any major city budgets the big story is not eye-popping police spending but shockingly low investment across the board. Today, no city can afford to fund public provisions to adequately address the upstream causes of police violence. Therefore, no city can effectively use the public purse to reduce the demand for police in poor, violent neighborhoods. The reallocation argument fails on these terms. And without addressing poverty and unemployment, the human costs of removing the police would be staggering. When Baltimore reformed its department after the death of Freddie Gray, a move that involved removing dozens of officers from their beats and changing methods to avoid police contact with citizens, homicides increased in that city a full 63% in a single year. 93% of the murder victims were black.17
It is no wonder, then, that the demand to defund the police is deeply unpopular, no matter how it is phrased, among black and white voters alike. Truthfully, I can’t think of a better way to repel working people of any race (the very group that liberals and progressives have increasingly struggled to mobilize) than to accept that austerity is permanent and to insist that concerns about crime are inconsequential.
Bayard Rustin once warned about activists’ psychic inability to fend off leftwing slogans which result in rightwing policy. That difficulty persists today. Not only do calls to “defund” fail to address the problems of police violence, racism, public safety or poverty, they also risk missing the clear opportunity to unite a constituency around ending the complementary problems of police brutality, gun violence, municipal austerity, and economic inequality. Each of these problems are widely felt concerns among working people. And advocacy around popular solutions like massive increases in federal social spending on public goods to eliminate unemployment, raising the minimum wage to a living wage, and federal gun reform, would go a long way to reducing police violence.
Slashing budgets has never been a solution fit to rectify the failures of any institution of government. In fact, it’s the exact policy approach, which has failed to provide high-wages and a broad range of public goods from health care to education. And if miserable low-wages and the lack of any stable economic life are a major cause of our uniquely violent police force, then it is necessary to insist that the federal government be held responsible and reverse course. To return to Rustin, when he campaigned for the “Freedom Budget for All Americans”, he was roundly ignored by the youth-dominated activist Left and the new militancy around the rising Black Power movement. Rustin, in warning against the lure of a new ethnic politics, understood that “dignity and self-respect must spring from the economic and social position which you hold in the society and cannot be mythologically and viscerally created […] where the objective situation indeed makes dignity impossible.”
Similarly, black lives can only truly matter in this society when we provide adequate jobs, housing, education, health care and so on, to everyone. If we want to end police violence, we must seek to end the economic violence visited upon nearly all victims of police brutality long before anyone calls 911.