Opinion

America's two crime problems

Understanding the conundrum of police reform

Last week brought fresh evidence that America has two crime problems: crime itself, and the police who are supposed to solve and prevent those crimes. It is not clear the two problems can be fixed independently.

The FBI released statistics showing the United States in 2020 saw its largest-ever year-over-year jump in homicides — a nearly 30 percent increase from the year before. One obvious explanation for the new numbers is the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced most Americans into a stressful lockdown. Another is that the country is so awash in guns that it's all too easy for violence to surge when times get bad.

Some conservatives have offered another possibility. They suggest that the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests that sprung up during Summer 2020 after George Floyd's murder by a Minneapolis police officer unleashed a wave of "anti-police fervor" that ended up making communities less safe.

"Police are retiring or quitting in droves, often because they do not want to take the daily abuse unleashed by the mobs unfairly blaming average cops for the racial problems that the Floyd case revealed," Henry Olsen wrote in The Washington Post. He added: "There is also evidence that police are pulling back in performing some of their duties. Confronting someone for a traffic violation or what appears to be a misdemeanor could result in escalation, which it seems many cops are not willing to risk given the politicization of their jobs."

Olsen is wrong on one point: The notion that law enforcement officers are quitting "in droves" is something of an urban myth. The Marshall Project, which covers crime policy, points out that American police departments lost less than 1 percent of their workforces in 2020, while the overall economy lost 6 percent of workers. Police seem to be staying in their jobs. It's tempting to dismiss Olsen's other point — that officers are pulling back from doing their jobs because they have come under increased scrutiny — because it suggests the homicide increase is a function of the nation's police being unwilling or unable to deal with widespread criticism.

A complicating factor: The criticism is richly deserved. The Lancet medical journal released a study suggesting that the number of police killings since 1980 is nearly twice what had been previously known — about 55 percent of such deaths had been officially listed as having some other cause, with no mention of police involvement. More than 17,000 deaths overall had gone under-reported. Unsurprisingly, Black people were disproportionately represented among the dead. The U.S. accounted for more than 13 percent of the world's reported police-involved deaths in 2019 — despite having just 4 percent of the world's population.

"Accountability and transparency in policing are lacking," the study's authors wrote, adding: "Police violence, like other forms of violence, is preventable."

The results of the Lancet study aren't particularly surprising. (A smaller Harvard study in 2017 yielded similar results.) They confirm a sense — fueled by a recent onslaught of horrifying cell phone and body cam videos — that America's police are often violent and overzealous in carrying out their duties, particularly when it comes to dealing with Black people. The study's findings also suggest the problems aren't the result of "a few bad apples," but instead are widespread and systemic.

That creates a major conundrum. If conservatives are correct, the country can begin to make itself safer by giving police officers the moral support they need to do their jobs well. But how can that support be freely given if the country's police departments are in clear and dire need of reform? Americans shouldn't have to choose between more accountable policing and their own personal safety.

To be fair, Olsen recognizes this challenge. "Police unions that want the support and respect of community leaders need to give leaders more leeway in such cases to discipline or remove offending officers," he wrote. Unions, though, have spent decades fighting accountability and steering their support to deferential politicians. There are signs that unyielding stance is beginning to shift in the face of public anger, but so far the pace of reform is sluggish

There is probably no single reason for the rise in crime, which means there is no single solution. Conservatives are right, however, that public safety rests to some degree on our trust in the people charged with protecting us. "The evidence from the scholarly literature suggests that the more legitimate the law and the police are in the eyes of America's communities, the less we will actually have to use them," the criminologist David M. Kennedy wrote last year. Legitimacy is earned, not bestowed. America's police must work to regain our trust. Maybe then we can start to become safer.

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