President Biden has just signed a series of executive orders designed to address racial justice issues. We'll see how those go but eventually we will get to the issues of police reform and accountability which, after all, was what the protests over the summer were most directly about. Making real progress on fixing the police would help poor communities of all colors and go a long way toward lowering the overall temperature on racial issues.
But what would really do the job? When criminal justice/policing reform does move onto the agenda (and I hasten to say that time is not right now) it is important that ineffective solutions, no matter how popular with activists, be sidelined and actually effective solutions embraced. Matt Yglesias in a lengthy, but very worthwhile, post on his Substack directly confronts this issue:
"Defunding the police is a bad idea that, wisely, the voters and political system have rejected.
But it was so thoroughly successful as a slogan that a situation has emerged online in which a willingness to embrace it is widely seen as the key sign of one’s commitment to taking complaints about police misconduct seriously.
The reality is just the opposite."
The reality, Yglesias argues, is that we need more cops better cops and easier ways to get rid of bad cops. And none of this is cheap. So instead of defunding you need more funding.
"The prevalence of repeat offenders in brutality cases and special lists of unreliable officers underscores that, as is pretty much always the case with human malfeasance, a majority of the wrongdoing is being perpetrated by a minority of the people. A huge USA Today review of misconduct allegations found that “less than 10 percent of officers in most police forces get investigated for misconduct. Yet some officers are consistently under investigation. Nearly 2,5000 have been investigated on 10 or more charges. Twenty faced 100 or more allegations yet kept their badges for years.”
In terms of reducing abuse, posting ACAB on social media and advocating for arbitrary budget cuts is going to drastically underperform actually identifying the perpetrators of misconduct and purging them.
It is understandable that some people will look at this catalog of dysfunction and decide they are not enthusiastic about investing public resources in these kind of institutions. But I also think it’s not a coincidence that the people most enthusiastic about defunding are young and highly educated — i.e., people with limited lived experience of the much higher crime rate of the 1980s and 1990s and who are relatively insulated from urban violence.
As I’ve written several times, it’s pretty overwhelmingly clear that more cops on the beat means less violent crime. Yet another paper on this came out recently, comparing crime trends in New Jersey’s two largest cities during a period where one of them had big police layoffs and the other didn’t. They found that “police layoffs were associated with significant increases of overall crime, violent crime, and property crime in Newark as compared to Jersey City in the post-layoffs period. Supplemental analyses found the overall crime and violent crime increases become progressively more pronounced each year following the police layoffs.”
He concludes with a list of reforms that could actually work to solve the problem:
" * Police should be completely stripped of all special procedural rights and investigated with the same investigative tools that they use against anyone else.
* These arbitration panels should be scrapped; officers should have some basic civil service protection against being fired for no cause at all, but the goal should be to build an effective police force not a sinecure for officers.
* Compensation structures should feature much higher starting salaries, but not escalate so much over the course of a career. You want way more people to consider a career in policing, but also make it lower stakes to counsel-out someone who finds it frustrating or can’t do the job well.
* Quitting one department and going to work in another one should be more normalized than it currently is, where officers instead seem to respond to directives they disagree with by acting surly. But officers dismissed for actual misconduct should not just get hired elsewhere as a shortcut.
* Departments need bigger recruiting budgets to invest in securing high-quality job candidates, including those who are Black, female, or fluent in Spanish or other locally relevant languages.
* Politicians should acknowledge that when we ask officers to be more restrained with the use of force, we are asking them to take risks with their lives that most people would not want to take and that cops should be compensated accordingly.
* But politicians should also insist that taking risks for the greater good of the community literally is the job, and officer fear can’t be an all-purpose answer to questions about brutality.
In the aggregate, we should hire more detectives, so non-fatal shootings get investigated as rigorously as fatal ones. There is also a whole bunch of studies that show when cops work long hours, they get tired and generate more use of force problems. Departments should hire more officers both as a means to boost diversity, and simultaneously to dramatically cut down on the reliance on overtime, long shifts, and other fatigue-inducing scenarios. And while putting beat cops on the street reduces crime, aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics appear to have no benefit over and above the basic benefit of the officers being physically present.
You want a large, diverse, well-compensated police force that is staffed to be present in high-crime areas without necessarily doing all that much, and then you want to hold the officers to a high standard of conduct rather than treating the job as make-work. It’s going to be expensive. But both police misconduct and crime itself are much too important to address in stingy ways or with superficial solutions."
In other words, show me the money! We should be funding, not defunding, the police if we want the improved policing pretty much everyone advocates these days.
To underscore the case here, policing reform that eschews defunding in favor of increased funding where needed hits the sweet spot in public opinion. Consider:
Defund the policy is most assuredly not popular. It has been tested again and again and since normal people assume that what defund the police means to prevent the police from continuing to receive funds, they oppose it. Even black respondents are unenthusiastic. Why? Because people are not really interested in even cutting funding for the police; therefore they have even less interest in defunding them. They show far more interest in reforming police conduct.
Pew did some great research along these lines. Besides showing very strong support across racial lines for various policing reforms, we have this result on whether spending on policing should be increased, decreased or remain the same. The results by race are white 77 percent increase or stay the same/21 percent decrease; Hispanic 76 percent to 24 percent and even blacks 55 percent to 42 percent (just 22 percent want to decrease spending "a lot").
So why do activists and a considerable number of their liberal supporters keep raising this demand, despite the lack of support it generates? Perhaps they are neglecting the important fact that police, however flawed, are critical to public safety, a matter of great importance to the public at large and certainly for black citizens who live in working class and poor communities. That helps explain why, in the midst of all the protests about policy brutality blacks approve of the job policy are doing in their community 52-42 (Qunnipiac) and say they're favorable to the police in their community by 47-38 (Economist/YouGov).
There you have it. In this case, doing the popular and doing the right thing coincide. One hopes that when criminal justice/policing reform gets higher on the agenda this important truth is remembered.