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The Policing Crisis

Policing is a cog in America’s uniquely punitive criminal justice machinery: Legislatures write tougher laws, police make more arrests, prosecutors bring more charges, and courts imprison far more people for longer terms under worse conditions than do authorities in any other affluent democracy. Police are also the public face of this renegade system. Millions of Americans have contact with the police every year, and even after successive waves of protest and civil unrest against police brutality, policing is still often intrusive, abusive, and sometimes gratuitously violent, especially in black and low-income neighborhoods.

If we think that these maladies are invariable and immutable expressions of an American system founded on settler colonialism and slavery, or if we believe on principle that coercion is bad and that the state has no “right” to coerce compliance with laws, then our course of action will be clear: we should steel ourselves with moral zeal and take up the cause to defund, dismantle, and abolish policing.18 But if we understand that these collective disorders represent a contingent fact of history—a modern shift of institutional logics that was gestated in the turmoil of the 1960s, born in the political retrenchment of the 1970s, and persists, albeit in increasingly attenuated modalities, today19—then we might begin the work of unpacking the bundle of associations, of bringing American law enforcement practices into alignment with constitutional protections, evolving international human rights norms, and rising standards of accountability.

The latter approach offers a richer and subtler view of history, to say nothing of having the advantage of being informed by a coherent comparative sociology. Policing, which exists in every modern society, can scarcely be traced to the slave patrols lore commonly circulated among abolitionists. Although it has plural (and often bloodstained) roots in the protection of private property, strikebreaking, sexual regulation, and the maintenance of race, ethnic, and class hierarchies, policing’s modern implantment in rationales of public safety represents a civilizational advance over private protection rackets and archaic forms of communal violence including lynch mobs, kinship-based self-defense, feuds, vendettas, and so on. It is part of an apparatus that inserts delays, rules, and deliberations in between accusation, apprehension, adjudication, and penalty. Its means of coercion are not intrinsically unjust or abusive. A socialist ought to be able to hold these opposed thoughts in his or her head at the same time.

Calls to defund, shrink, and ultimately abolish20 the police misdiagnose the problem with American policing and prescribe a course likely to make things worse, not better.

  1. Compared with other countries, the US does not stand out as having a bloated police force. The US has 210 police officers per 100,000 people, about the same number as Sweden (203). It has significantly fewer police per 100,000 than the Netherlands (299), a country that is not usually associated with aggressive, violent policing. (See Tauheeda Yasin’s discussion in this symposium.) Germany (297), Scotland (322), France (326), Spain (361), and Italy (453) all have considerably denser concentrations of police, and the European average is 316 police officers per 100,000 people.21 No doubt each system has its own particular problems. (French police notoriously hassle North African youth, for example—although this does not sum up to the same general derangement of criminal justice; the country’s carceral system is no more than a feeble shadow of the US’s.22 ) But overall, the size of police forces is not readily correlated with abusive policing, excessive uses of force, human rights violations, high incarceration rates, or other features of a punitive state. (Inside the US, there seems to be an inverse correlation: smaller, poorly funded police departments commit more violence against citizens than larger, better funded ones; see Dustin Guastella’s piece in this symposium.) The pertinent questions are less about quantity than quality of policing.
  1. Advocates for defunding the police propose to reroute the money to government programs, youth groups, NGOs, and assorted prevention efforts that might better serve communities and also might have the effect of reducing violence. But police budgets do not actually make up a large percentage of government spending. The Urban League estimates that police spending represents 4% of state and local direct general expenditures nationwide. Of course, cities do spend more than rural areas. In a survey of the country’s 150 largest cities, the New York Times found that the average share of general expenditures devoted to policing is 7.8%, with considerable variation among the outliers. In New York City, the police share comes to 6% of local spending. (Perhaps what is surprising here is how little the average number has increased from 6.6% in 1977, despite decades of bellicose “war on crime” political rhetoric.) Now some cities might indeed benefit from reordered priorities, investment in demonstration projects, housing supplements, enhanced poverty alleviation efforts, and so on. But in the aggregate, there is simply not enough money in police budgets to move the dial on social inequality. That would require new revenues—federal tax rates comparable to those of Northern European countries—and massive investments in health, education, and welfare.
  1. The US is unique among affluent democracies in the number of civilians killed—mostly shot—by police. And the number of fatal shootings by police has remained stubbornly stable at around 1,000 per year since The Washington Post began tracking the numbers in 2015. These are shameful statistics. The problem is that demands to defund or scale back policing do not address the wider problem of lethal violence in America: The country has a persistently high violent crime rate and is uniquely awash with guns. The US homicide rate is two-and-a-half to ten times that of other developed democracies and of the 15,129 homicides recorded in 2017, 73% (10,982) were committed with a firearm. Of the 1,001 people shot dead by police in 2019, 93% (926) were said to have been armed with a weapon of some sort—60% (600) with a gun. It is hard to imagine eliminating police shootings, much less policing, in a heavily armed country so inured to violence. The two problems are interlinked. We need credible approaches that will reduce both violent crime and police violence.
  1. Defunders and abolitionists say that reform hasn’t worked. They point to the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd and string of similar horrific events. Such images inflame the public, and rightly so, but police violence actually has declined significantly since the 1990s, dramatically since the 1970s. And police killings are down by almost a third in big cities since Michael Brown’s death in 2014, although they have risen in rural and suburban areas, offsetting urban declines. (Note that cops are typically better paid, better trained, and better supervised in big cities—and there are more of them.) Over the same period, the percentage of unarmed men shot and killed by police has declined from a little more than 9% of total fatal shootings to about 5%, perhaps reflecting new or clarified use-of-force protocols, especially in big cities. Meanwhile, authorities are becoming increasingly vigilant about curbing everyday human rights violations. “Stop-and-frisk,” once widely practiced, has been all but eliminated in New York City (and has been scaled back in other places as well). Collectively, these trends suggest that policing is quite reformable—and that we should intensify and quicken the pace of reforms.

Bernie Sanders’ recent refusal to embrace demands to defund and abolish policing (demands that tacitly accept the limits of austerity budgets) has drawn hoots and catcalls from the cancel culture activists of Twitterverse and Leftbook. Accustomed to circulating arcane terms amongst small groups of insiders, some have couched their counsel in inventive definitions of what the term “defund” might mean. Libertarians, at least, are honest about words and understand what they’re saying when they call for defunding: they want to privatize policing and put all security arrangements on the marketplace. Bernie’s position, by contrast, views security as a public good. This approach has the advantage of aligning with public opinion, which acknowledges racist enforcement, supports reform, and—across all race/ethnic groups—strongly opposes defunding. It also resonates with Colin Kaepernick’s point about underfunding and undertraining: “You can become a cop in six months and don’t have to have the same amount of training as a cosmetologist. That’s insane.” (By contrast, Northern European police typically receive 2 to 3 years of training, including extensive coursework in social sciences, human relations, and psychology—with emphasis on conflict resolution and crisis management.)

Embracing the urgent need for radical reform, Sanders also makes his commitment to a welfarist version of public security clear: “Do I think we should not have police departments in America? No, I don’t. There’s no city in the world that does not have police departments.” The democratic socialist elaborates: “I called for police departments that have well-educated, well-trained, well-paid professionals. And, too often around this country right now, you have police officers who take the job at very low payment, don’t have much education, don’t have much training—and I want to change that.” He continues, envisioning a much wider role for social services, as distinct from policing: “[M]any police departments and cops deal every day with issues of mental illness, deal with issues of addiction, and all kinds of issues which should be dealt with by mental health professionals or others, and not just by police officers.”

The call to defund or abolish the police is a gift to the right. We need instead a series of radical reforms along with enhanced training, closer supervision, and democratic accountability. We should be looking to models that work rather than engaging in fantasies about civil patrols and communal policing, which will ultimately mean an expansion of private guard labor and private policing, unaccountable to public oversight.

Notes

18. Alex S. Vitale, The End of Policing (London: Verso, 2016).
19. Roger N. Lancaster, “The New Pariahs: Sex, Crime, and Punishment in America,” in The War on Sex, ed. David Halperin and Trevor Hoppe (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), pp. 65-81.
20. Mariame Kaba, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” New York Times, Opinion (June 12, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/12/opinion/sunday/floyd-abolish-defund-police.html.
21. The US figure is derived from the FBI’s 2018 Uniform Crime Reporting, Table 74, Full-Time Law Enforcement Employees, https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2018/crime-in-the-u.s.-2018/tables/table-74. See also Shelley S. Hyland and Elizabeth Davis, “Local Police Departments, 2016: Personnel,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, October 2019, NCJ 252835. European data is from the 2016 Eurostat report, https://www.euronews.com/2019/01/04/which-european-countries-have-the-most-police.
22. Didier Fassin, Enforcing Order: An Ethnography of Urban Policing (London: Polity, 2013).
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