Centrist pundits and journalists are building a narrative that the left is to blame for the recent increase of murders in the United States. At The New York Times, columnist Maureen Dowd published a credulous interview with Bill Bratton, in which the former NYPD commissioner asserted: "They defunded the police. What do they get? Rising crime, cops leaving in droves, difficulty recruiting. Now, they're waking up to the fact that our cities are unsafe." At The Washington Post, reporter Scott Wilson published an article blaming Portland's spike in murders over the last year on anarchists and other leftist activists.
There has indeed been a large surge in homicides in many cities across the country over the last year. But it is categorically false to say that the police have been seriously "defunded" in any major city. In fact, budgets have gone up in most of them — including New York, where after a small cut that was largely an accounting trick last year, police spending is going up once again.
Black Lives Matter activists do not run city governments in this country. Cops should be held responsible for failing to do their jobs — if they can't control crime, it's time to scrap their departments and start anew with something that can.
Let's examine some numbers. Official FBI statistics on homicide in 2020 will not be available until September, but a report for the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice examined a sample of 34 cities for a reasonable snapshot. The authors found an average increase in homicide of about 30 percent — up 100 percent in Madison, 73 percent in Omaha, and 48 percent in Memphis; but just 14 percent in Washingon, D.C., and actually down 50 percent in Virginia Beach.
These surges of murders are also mostly concentrated in the cities' minority populations — New York's population is only about a quarter Black, but those residents make up 65 percent of murder victims there; in Philadelphia the figures are 44 percent and 86 percent respectively.
Scholars are still studying these numbers hard, and it will surely be months at least before we get a clear picture of the national trends. But it's fair to surmise that the pandemic was almost certainly a big culprit here — people were trapped at home for months during a stressful situation, many lost jobs and income, and so on. What's more, many nonprofit or community-based crime prevention operations couldn't operate due to social distancing rules.
In his Washington Post piece, Wilson heavily implies that soi-disant social justice activists are trampling over the wishes of the Black community who want more cops and more war-on-crime policies. Now, of course a spree of homicides is a tragic, terrible situation, and a major focus of concern among those communities. Yet overall, just 19 percent of Black Americans have confidence in police. In a recent primary election in Philadelphia, for instance, reformist District Attorney Larry Krasner trounced challenger Carlos Vega, in part thanks to racking up 80-90 percent margins in heavily-Black parts of the city. Plainly, Black Philadelphians did not buy the argument from Vega (and the Philly police union backing him up) that Krasner's supposed soft-on-crime policy was to blame for the homicide problem.
It seems that while nobody wants to see lots of murders in their community, few non-white Americans trust the police to do much about it. And that is an entirely reasonable conclusion: In Philly, the police manage to make an arrest in only about 40 percent of homicides — meaning any killer has a better-than-even chance of getting away with it. Call the police there, and you're liable to get harassed, beaten, or shot instead of helped. It's a similar story in most other big cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. Portland police do somewhat better, but their 62 percent clearance rate for 2020 as of November is still a sharp fall from 85 percent in 2017.
Now, there is some tentative evidence that more police can cut down on homicides. In a recent working paper, a group of social scientists, using evidence from 1981 to 2018 plugged into a complicated mathematical model, estimated that hiring an additional police officer will cut homicides by 0.06 to 0.1 per year. But on the other hand, they found doing so also creates a lot of harassing, destructive "quality of life" arrests that are concentrated on the Black population. Furthermore, most of this data comes from before 2014-15, when police performance utterly collapsed in many cities — and as the authors note, there are many other non-police strategies that have worked well and cost much less.
Another paper studied the withdrawal of police after the Ferguson protests in 2015, and found "no evidence of an effect of arrest rates on city homicide rates for any offense category for any year in this period, including 2015, the year of the spike in homicide levels." In general, there is no discernible relationship between national police budgets and crime — budgets went up while crime soared in the 1960s, and kept going up when crime fell in the 1990s and 2000s.
Insofar as changes in attitudes towards the cops are to blame for increased crime, it seems more likely it's because the police are facing a legitimacy crisis that is entirely their own fault. Their brutal behavior and atrocious job performance have badly dented their reputation, and fewer people are willing to call the police when they see a crime, or participate in a police investigation. "Protect and serve" is a sick joke when cops are constantly in the news for things like shooting children or beating unarmed protesters senseless, and then the rest of the force stands behind the culprits in lockstep.
That also does much to explain why many police departments are having so much trouble recruiting. Decent people who don't want to abuse the citizenry have become disillusioned, having learned what policing actually entails in this country. Meanwhile the insecure, frustrated bullies who just wanted a badge so they could push people around now could (just possibly) face consequences for doing so.
It follows that insofar as cities want to reestablish deterrence with decent police, priority number one should be rebuilding the shattered reputations and competence of departments — not stuffing money into the existing broken system. In many cities, that likely entails scrapping the entire department and rebuilding from the ground up, to root out an entrenched culture of lawless impunity and contempt for the local citizenry.
Much more important would be diverting money to non-police interventions — again, something that has not happened in the last year at any meaningful scale. For instance, one of the most significant crime control initiatives in Los Angeles history was the historic truce brokered between the Crips and the Bloods in 1992. Police had nothing whatsoever to do with this. It held for a decade, and drastically cut the rate of gang crime. Other "violence interrupter" programs have shown very promising results.
But that requires seeing the impoverished perpetrators and victims of homicides in this country as human beings who have been largely cut out of the social contract, rather than deviant, bestial, irredeemable criminals who should be warehoused in prisons — which is how current NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea talks about them. Rewarding cops for failing to do their jobs is not a solution to crime.