I am not a police officer, but, as a teacher, I have a special sympathy for the work they do. There happens to be many parallels between police officers and public educators. Both serve their local communities and play a key role in promoting peace and order. Both see up close the good, the bad, and the ugly of society. And both end up doing far more than their original job description, not just teaching or enforcing laws, but building relationships and supporting the people they encounter regularly. It is not a job; it is a calling.
Unfortunately, both teachers and cops also experience the same great challenge: when things go wrong in a community, they will frequently take the blame. If a neighborhood experiences poverty, violence, or social unrest, critics will target the teachers who failed to teach or the police who failed to bring law and order. Those on the right will blame unionization and government bureaucracy protecting mediocrity and incompetence while those on the left will blame a rigged system reinforcing hierarchies of privilege. Few on either side will bother to consider the problems of broken homes, cultural decadence, or the loss of jobs caused by outsourcing and automation.
Normally, these concerns will result in reform efforts. Politicians at all levels will present their plans to improve schools and law enforcement and thereby win the support of various constituencies. People would vote and learn to live with their decision. This was yet another thing that law enforcement and public education had in common—until now.
The Problem with Defunding the Police
Incited by an activist media and leftist radicals as well as frustrated by the lockdowns and the ensuing economic devastation, many Americans are now calling to abolish or defund police departments altogether. Reform has not worked, so it’s now time for a complete removal of police and, in the words of Rep. Ilhan Omar, “disband [the police] and reimagine public safety in Minneapolis.”
Even if one interprets this idea of eliminating city police forces in the most flattering terms, it will still not lead to the improvements that advocates imagine it will. Quite the opposite, it will likely bring about the kind of instability and destruction that one normally associates with third-world countries. As John Daniel Davidson puts it in a recent essay, “If you want to know what that form of security [one without police] looks like, look at Iraq, or Somalia, or Libya.”
Omar and other leftist radicals are somehow imagining that criminals will stop committing crimes when the police stop harassing and provoking them. Neither the rampant looting, vandalism, and arson of her town, nor the absolute dysfunction of her native country Somalia seems to cause Omar to rethink her position and consider the likelihood that crime in her district could actually be worse than it is. Rather, she seems to think that making citizens more vulnerable is the same as making them safer.
Some writers and unfunny leftist comedians have tried to support this idea by insisting that defunding the police doesn’t really mean defunding the police, but instead reallocating funds for the police to various social services. Writing for the Washington Post, the Georgetown law professor Christie Lopez claims that “Defunding the police means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need.”
To follow this argument, one would have to accept the idea that police are really nothing more than social workers with guns, not people charged with enforcing the law and stopping criminals. Under this framework, most, if not all crime, is a result of social inequality and could thus be prevented through more welfare programs (low-income housing and treatment for the mentally ill).
Besides the fact that this argument is non-sequitur (e.g., in order to reform police departments, cities must take away their funding and put it into homeless shelters), it is also completely false. Many cities have devoted great sums of money to welfare programs in the hopes of reducing crime by improving people’s circumstances, but this has not happened. As writer Heather MacDonald points out, “The claim that better-funded social services can deliver public safety is baseless. New York City tried that experiment for decades, and it was a resounding failure. No city spent more on welfare, yet crime continued to rise.” It was only when New York took a more data-based approach with policing that their notoriously high crime rate went down.
The success of the NYPD offers proof that reforms are possible in improving law enforcement. By contrast, the failures of Ferguson, Missouri and Camden, New Jersey offer proof that reducing or eliminating local law enforcement would a terrible move. Whatever the intention, fewer police officers will inevitably translate to less safety.
Police Reform Will Require Incentive
If the goal is to make life better for inner-city neighborhoods and helping black communities in particular, then city leaders should adopt two tried and true strategies for law enforcement: hot spot policing and focused deterrence. As Robert Verbruggen explains at National Review, hot spot policing “relies on deploying police to the areas where crime is” while focused deterrence “involves singling out high-risk individuals and groups for targeted interventions that involve both social services and the threat of punishment if they break the law.”
So what prevents all police departments from adopting these strategies? Probably the same thing that prevents school districts from making serious reforms: a lack of incentives. Without the accountability that comes through competition, the quality of police work largely rests on the good will of its policemen, just as the quality of school instruction rests on the good will of the teachers. In tougher areas, this good will disappears quickly, leading to less discipline and more lapses in performance. And as these multiply, distrust grows between the authorities and citizens. Policy wonks can offer all kinds of data and prescriptions, but unless they address this problem of incentives, little will change.
For this reason, cities should consider the idea of giving residents a choice. As with school choice, which allows parents to choose their children’s school through the use of vouchers, local residents could also have a choice with their public safety. This choice would then offer an incentive for accredited private and public police departments to compete for people to use their service. Talent would be rewarded, and results would drive performance instead of politics.
More importantly, choice would empower residents by allowing them to take ownership of how they are protected. If they are dissatisfied with their law enforcement service, they can use a different service—rather than riot and protest, only to hear lame excuses and empty promises. This is why school choice has become so popular in states that have implemented it. It allows parents to remove their children from a toxic environment and put their students with people they trust. Otherwise, this kind of freedom is a privilege reserved for parents who can afford it.
Although the great majority of Americans want to keep their police departments, the resentment against law enforcement is still real. While public leaders should strive for reforms that ensure effectiveness and fairness, they should also consider what can be done in the relationships between police officers and civilians. Among other things, the call for abolishing the police shows that people mostly feel alienated from the individuals charged to protect them. This is a problem that won’t be solved more training, and it certainly won’t be solved with fewer officers; it’s something can only be solved by giving more power and freedom to the people.
Photo Credit: Wayzata.org