Calls to “defund the police” are misguided and fly in the face of research. Study after study shows that 1) more officers decrease crimes, particularly when they are focused in highly-criminalized neighborhoods, and 2) better-trained and educated officers are much less likely to use force and more likely to utilize more effective policing practices. By “defunding” or making significant cuts to police budgets, law enforcement agencies will be limited in their ability to hire more officers or maintain current staffing levels, will likely have to reduce or eliminate certain training or continuing education programs, and will not be able to attract better candidates or retain these officers due to lack of financial incentives. We need more investments in areas that have proven to better the quality of officers. This will make our streets safer and strengthen the bonds between law enforcement and their communities.
Additionally, polling has shown that US adults, regardless of age or race, overwhelmingly want to see funding for police increase or stay about the same. In September 2021, just 15% of US adults said that spending on police should be decreased.
We also need to fund law enforcement like the core function of government they are. However, instead of clear and transparent appropriations, many police budgets across the country rely significantly on fines, fees, and forfeitures that are collected and enforced by law enforcement. This warps the core functions of police and can cause significant tensions between them and the communities they serve. We must fund law enforcement through means that do not distort their objectives because every minute they spend on revenue-generating activities is a minute they are not spending on solving or preventing serious crime.
Rampant and unchecked criminal activity destroys economic opportunity in our communities and creates barriers to people realizing the American Dream. Policing that dedicates necessary resources to preventing and solving serious crime is critical for our neighborhoods to realize their full potential. However, we task law enforcement with far too many responsibilities that go beyond the core functions of protecting and serving the public, leaving less time to devote to these core missions.
Police spend only a small percentage of their time on violent crimes, while the vast majority of their work is focused on non-criminal calls and traffic-related incidents. Additionally, 13% of the estimated 10,085,207 arrests made in 2019 were for simple drug possession.
Law enforcement lack alternatives for those suffering from mental health or substance use issues. This means police routinely become the first and only line of response for these individuals when their underlying issues lead to criminal behavior or a mental health crisis.
We have seen many jurisdictions refuse to prosecute certain quality-of-life crimes, such as shoplifting,and allow individuals to break the law with little to no consequences. While lengthy incarceration is not the appropriate remedy in most of these cases, ignoring these offenses undermines the quality of life for law-abiding residents and lowers property values in neighborhoods where these crimes go unabated. Additionally, a lack of enforcement means lawbreakers will face no accountability for their actions, and our system misses a chance to address the underlying causes of a person’s criminal behavior, such as mental illness and substance use disorders.
Instead, proper investment in services that would help treat people with these issues would significantly reduce the time, energy, and resources currently required of law enforcement while providing more successful alternatives that treat the underlying causes of many individuals’ criminal actions.
This mission creep from true public safety functions has hindered law enforcement’s ability to focus on the most serious issues plaguing our communities. In 1976, the clearance rate (generally defined as either identifying or arresting a suspect) for homicides was 82%. That rate had fallen to 50% by 2020. Non-fatal shooting clearance rates are about half of that. In 2020, only 41.7% of reported violent offenses were “cleared” by an arrest.
With thousands of vacancies in police departments across the country, it is more critical than ever that we focus the limited resources of police on public safety and strengthening community trust in their profession. Victims deserve justice, and our hard-working law enforcement officers should be provided with the bandwidth they need to achieve a passing grade in their community’s public safety.
Violent crime is highly concentrated amongst a very small network of people within each city. Because of this, strategies that target specific geographic locations and social networks combined with increased support services have shown to be effective at addressing violent crime without seeing a “spillover” into other communities and while building trust between police and communities. One strategy, “focused deterrence,” made famous by the city of Boston’s “Operation Ceasefire,” focuses on:
Cities that have properly implemented this model achieved significant reductions in violent crime.
Non-law enforcement interventions designed to change the environment in local communities have also been found to reduce crime. Small investments such as increased street lighting have been shown to have positive effects on crime, including violent crime. Community-wide coordinated efforts to “clean and green” vacant lots in cities have also been shown to reduce violent crime without any “spillover” into nearby neighborhoods.
The city of Dallas, Texas has recently implemented many of these strategies, including “hot spot” policing, focused deterrence, “clean and green” strategies, increased social services, and violence interrupters. While most American cities saw increased rates of homicides in 2021, Dallas was able to decrease its homicide rate by 13% from 2020-2021. Additionally, arrests went down 11% during that time period, showing that focusing on the highest-risk individuals, rather than strategies casting a wide net amounting to more arrests, is a more effective route.
An approach combining targeted law enforcement efforts with programming, services, community support, and environmental changes is a proven mechanism for cities to reduce violent crime. Federal, state, and local leaders should learn from these evidence-based policies to tackle violent crime effectively.
For nearly 15 years, states such as Texas, Georgia, Oklahoma, and North Carolina have shown that smarter criminal justice investments can improve public safety while respecting human dignity and easing burdens on taxpayers. The experiences of these states and more than 30 others reveal that reducing incarceration and investing in treatment, alternatives to incarceration, and programming for certain individuals in the criminal justice system can reduce prison and jail populations while increasing public safety and reentry success.
“Smart on crime” policies also allow law enforcement to focus bandwidth and resources on high-risk individuals while limiting unnecessary contact with the criminal justice system for those who pose little to no threat to public safety. For example, when a person is charged with a crime, their freedom prior to trial routinely rests on whether they have the means to pay financial bail rather than their risk to society. This allows those who are a public safety threat to buy their way out of jail, while low-risk defendants stay incarcerated prior to trial simply because they cannot afford even a small amount of bail.
Current policies that allow individuals to be released who are a danger to the community have resulted in serious risks to public safety. In November 2021, Isus Thompson walked up to an NYPD officer and struck him from behind with a metal safe inside a backpack, sending the officer to the hospital. Despite security and police body camera footage of the heinous attack, and the fact that Thompson was convicted of stabbing an NYPD officer in 2008, he was still released shortly after the attack without a request for bail by prosecutors.
States should look to change their constitutions and statutes to provide judges greater discretion to detain pre-trial defendants who pose a serious threat to our communities. Additionally, courts should limit unnecessary pre-trial detention for those who pose little to no threat to public safety and simply cannot afford to pay bail. Recent data shows that the median annual income for people unable to afford bail is $15,598, while the median national bail amount is nearly a full year’s salary for these individuals. Even a short pre-trial incarceration period can lead to a greater chance of criminal activity in the future and reduce the chances of a person positively contributing to society.
While those who pose a risk to public safety should be detained, policymakers cannot simply incarcerate their way out of the concerning upticks in violent crime. The approaches laid out in earlier principles should be implemented, and policymakers should not waiver from continuing the positive criminal justice reforms that have shown to be effective at reducing crime and taxpayer costs. Having achieved monumental gains in public safety over the past two decades, America must continue its pursuit of smart on crime policies.
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