“Fund communities not cops.” That’s a fashionable slogan just now as activists across the country seek to shift resources away from urban police departments, partly as payback for overly aggressive, racially motivated policing, especially in African-American neighborhoods.
High-profile civilian shooting deaths involving officers and a sharper focus on racial disparities in stops, searches and arrests are driving the notion that police departments need to be penalized as a way to compel reforms in police behavior.
The police have crossed the line in far too many instances and the need for reform is clear. But while activists are right to argue that the root causes of crime must be more vigorously attacked with remedies that are more generously funded, evidence strongly suggests that cutting police budgets and reducing police strength on the street is likely to backfire by inviting more crime and violence, at least in the short term.
Before exploring the reasons why, the public should understand that the “uptick” in civilian killings by police is less a reality than a perception stoked by media attention. The rate of killings by police has remained relatively constant for years, at about 1,000 annually, according to an exhaustive investigation by the Washington Post. Over the last four years, 45 percent of the victims were white men, 23 percent were black men. (At only 6 percent of the population, black males were grossly overrepresented.) Twenty-five percent of victims had mental disorders. Only 4 percent were unarmed.
Fatal shootings by police are exceedingly rare, almost to the point of defying statistical analysis. They happen in only 0.00002 percent of encounters between cops and civilians. Still, they appear to happen most frequently in states with higher rates of gun ownership, suggesting that a proliferation of firearms is a prime factor in triggering overreactions by police. Investigators note that it’s hard for cops to ignore the potential for gunfire every time they stop a car or enter a home. More than 100 million homes and 10 million cars contain guns. In Britain, where guns are rare, police kill about six people per year.
It’s notoriously difficult for criminologists to explain the rising and falling rates of crime, given the socioeconomic and cultural factors involved and the police strategies employed. But the precipitous drop in violent crime in the 1990s showed clearly the two police strategies that worked best.
One was more police. The 1994 crime bill added 100,000 local cops to the streets. Cities adding the most officers enjoyed the largest drops in violent crime. A Brookings Institution study estimated that a $1.4 billion investment in additional officers returned a societal value of $6 billion to $12 billion in crime reduction.
A second effective strategy was “flooding the zone” — deploying police where computers predicted crimes were most likely to occur. Most large cities adopted this model. First employed by the New York transit police, it was credited with helping cut crime rates by nearly half between 1995 and 2012. Overloading hot spots didn’t boost arrests as much as deter crimes from happening. After 9/11, Washington, D.C., police noted that during terrorist alerts, when police presence was most apparent, crime nearly disappeared.
Paradoxically, it’s those two strategies that community activists find most objectionable, and it’s easy to see why. African-Americans, especially, with a sad history of distrusting police, abhor living “under occupation.”
In many cities, flooding the zone with cops led to stop-and-search operations that turned up wanted suspects and removed thousands of guns from the streets, but also humiliated and infuriated law-abiding residents who were inevitably swept up in the process. Trust in the police evaporated even as crime rates fell. This conundrum continues to frustrate both the police, who resent accusations of profiling, and residents who feel torn between living with crime or living with cops.
Finding a sweet spot will be difficult but not impossible. Some urban departments have taken to heart President Barack Obama’s 2015 report on community policing by trying to remold their officers as “guardians, not warriors.” Some now track rates of “community trust” as closely as rates of crime. As for residents of high-crime neighborhoods, there remains a surprising reservoir of trust in local police. Sixty percent of blacks (and 80 percent of whites) hold favorable views of their local departments.
Big cities will never be like Mayberry, Andy Griffith’s fictional town where police and residents lived side by side. But the slogan “Fund communities not cops” ought to read “Fund communities and cops.”