Opinion

Refund the police

With strings attached

We're just over 75 days into the Biden era, and it's already quite a new world. Building on precedents set during the Trump administration, the political limits for spending have moved far higher than we've ever seen before, with the enthusiastic support of the Federal Reserve. It feels like a deep and fundamental shift, from a public philosophy based on scarcity to one based on abundance: more support for families, more housing, more jobs, more and cleaner electricity.

It's a welcome change. While it lasts, though, I have to ask: Can we agree that, as long as we're funding more of everything, we're going to also re-fund the police?

Not that the police were ever actually de-funded, mind you. But last summer, outrage over police brutality joined with the same philosophy of scarcity that had limited so many other social development efforts outside of law enforcement for so many years, and the slogan, "defund the police," gained mainstream currency for the first time. It was never entirely clear what the slogan meant — some people meant literally abolish the police while others meant funding should be diverted away from police departments and towards other social services — but the one thing that was clear was that police departments as currently constituted were part of the problem rather than the solution, and that future funding needed to reflect that fact.

Since then, it has become apparent that America's decades-long trend of declining crime has decisively reversed. The rise in crime is not uniform across all geographies or across all categories, but it is unmistakable. Some is the result of the pandemic, which closed schools, shuttered places of employment, and isolated people from many of their social outlets. Some is likely the result of last summer's ructions; high-profile scandals involving the police are frequently followed by higher crime, whether because officers and departments step back, or because communities distrust and therefore cooperate less with law enforcement, or both. But the inflection point actually lies a few years further back, in the mid-2010s, before either the pandemic or the George Floyd protests. So it is probably a mistake to assume that with the end of the pandemic, the current crime wave will end as well.

That means it has to be addressed. And that means — among other things — funding the police.

It needs to be addressed because crime is bad. It is bad in and of itself: Theft, robbery, rape, assault, to say nothing of murder, all are deeply traumatic violations of personal integrity that cannot and should not be ignored. Rising crime can also be both a meaningful economic drag and a driver of inequality. It victimizes vulnerable individuals and communities, particularly lower-income and communities of color, most directly. It also prompts wealthier communities to reduce their interactions with high-crime areas, thereby cutting them off from economic life, and to divert resources into private security. Finally, because preserving public safety is a fundamental function of government, failing to address rising crime fuels distrust in government and therefore reactionary politics.

Of course, addressing rising crime doesn't solely mean police work. Homelessness, drug addiction, mental illness and poverty are all frequently better addressed through services other than law enforcement — and treating them primarily as a law-enforcement problem has caused these problems to fester, and done the police themselves no service.

But the police still have a vital role to play, indeed a central role, in maintaining public order. And doing that role well costs money.

One of the most important things police do is prevent crime before it happens. To do that well, without abuse, requires an active and familiar presence — more cops on the beat, all the time, who know their beat well and are known in turn. By contrast, the mechanisms we've used to stretch a force — sophisticated statistical models that surge cops into high-crime areas, a reliance on surveillance, and military-style weaponry — actually move cops further from the people who live in neighborhoods and make them more like occupying armies. That can bring crime down, but at the price of poisoned relations that make those gains fragile. Meanwhile, some abuses are a direct consequence of funding strategies; municipalities that rely heavily on petty fines to finance the department are effectively funding their police by harassing the most vulnerable portion of the population.

So why have those options been chosen so often? Because they are cheaper than simply adding more cops. That problem is only going to get worse because of Baumol's Cost Disease, which makes any labor-intensive industry more expensive over time. But there is no substitute for direct, personal interaction, which is as true for law enforcement as it is for education or health care.

We do need to figure out how to get more value out of the police we hire, along with reforms to weed out abusive cops. Both mean taking on police unions — but any serious strategy for doing that will also require more money. Why? Getting more value out of the force probably requires making the return on police work less back-loaded (one of the best jobs in America is "retired cop"). That takes money. Giving up some workplace protections so that bad cops can be fired will require some kind of compensating benefit as well. Want urban police forces to live in the cities they serve? That frequently means asking officers to spend more on housing — and that also costs money.

None of this should be a problem if money isn't tight. And none of this should be viewed as contradictory to the criminal justice reform agenda. Many of the most important prospective reforms of America's criminal justice system revolve around the punishment side of the ledger rather than the policing side: Reducing the length of sentences, improving prison conditions, and providing alternatives to incarceration. The goal should be a more humane system that also saves money. But politically these reforms depend on low and dropping crime for their popularity. And practically speaking, the effectiveness of criminal justice as a deterrent has more to do with the sureness and swiftness of punishment than it does with the severity thereof. That means high clearance rates matter more than long sentences — and higher clearance rates require more (and better) police.

The politics of the issue aren't actually that complicated. Hiring more police is consistently popular, including in Black communities that also voice concerns about police abuse. Progressives are already raising alarms about the rising tide of anti-Asian violence specifically; it's just one more step to realize that crime in general doesn't need to be a right-wing issue, but can be a consensus issue of good governance. That means valorizing and funding the police as part of a larger strategy for both crime reduction and criminal justice reform.

The good news is we apparently have the money — at the federal level, where leverage can be applied for reform in exchange for funding — to bring crime back down. Now would be a good time to start debating how best to spend it.

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