Following a summer of protests, the trial of Derek Chauvin, and a number of high-profile police shootings, America is in the midst of an unprecedented level of media coverage and national attention directed towards law enforcement. Unfortunately, and like most other policy areas, police reform has been politicized. Americans are polarized across age, race/ethnicity, levels of education and socioeconomic status, and, of course, political affiliation. Public opinion polling finds that Democrats and Republicans differ on nearly everything: perceptions of the use of force, what the future of policing should look like, and even whether policing is a dangerous profession in and of itself.
While rigorous debate is healthy, the current political climate surrounding police reform seems to be becoming untenable. Both sides of the political spectrum cannot agree on basic facts. If we continue down this path, we will fail to enact meaningful changes in police accountability that are sorely needed. Such a path would be a threat to public safety.
Some people possess nuanced and sophisticated viewpoints on crime and policing. However, and speaking in generalities, here are the top few topics the left and the right tend to get wrong.
Innovative Police Strategies
There is plenty of evidence that select innovative policing strategies reduce crime. Systematic reviews based on decades worth of scientific studies reveal that hot spot policing/directed patrol, problem-oriented policing, and focused deterrence/pulling levers are effective at addressing crime and disorder. Such strategies work best and minimize harm when employed in surgically precise manners, like focusing on specific, micro-places and high-rate offenders.
Despite the call to “defund the police,” a police pullback (i.e., de-policing) from these tactics may be harmful to the very communities that bear the brunt of the crime problem. Those calling to abolish the police should also be cautious about police retreating entirely from activities like traffic enforcement.
Disparity vs. Discrimination
When it comes to policing, racial disparities and discrimination are not synonymous and should not be used interchangeably. A disparity is a difference in an observable outcome compared to a reference category, whereas discrimination occurs when decisions or outcomes are biased and based on illegitimate or extralegal factors. There are clear and convincing racial/ethnic disparities in every facet of our criminal justice system. African Americans and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics are overrepresented in jail and prison populations as well as both offenders and victims of violent crime.
Yet, much of these disparities can be explained by the fact that racial/ethnic groups live in divergent social worlds and occupy different rungs of the socio-economic ladder. Blacks and Hispanics, on average, tend to live in more economically disadvantaged, higher-crime areas compared to white Americans. Much of these differences are due to historical and systemic factors – like redlining and other unequal government policies.
One of the most problematic comparisons is that Black Americans make up 13% of the country’s population but 25% of those fatally shot by police since 2015. This is certainly a racial disparity here worthy of our attention; however, it is incorrect to suggest that such a disparity is solely due to bias or discrimination on the part of law enforcement. One must take into account a host of other factors: quantity and quality of police-citizen interactions across race/ethnicity, possession of weapons and levels of threat to officers and other citizens present, etc.
Disparities do not automatically mean discrimination. Using data to examine disparities is challenging and wrought with confounding variables, especially given how race/ethnicity and economics are inextricably linked.
Availability of Firearms
Whether we like it or not, the widespread availability of firearms in American society is another major variable. As such, American policing is dangerous, and comparing the number of citizens killed by US law enforcement to other countries is a false equivalence. We have more guns than people, and firearms are responsible for more than 95% of felonious homicides of police officers, while 87% of those fatally shot by police from 2015 through March 2020 were in possession of a deadly weapon. It is unfair and frankly disingenuous to compare the US to other northern and western European countries on these metrics.
Justified Use of Force vs. Brutality
There is a difference between police use of force and brutality. The use of coercive and non-negotiable force is the most defining feature of the police role. Officers must force compliance on people who do not want to comply. They must put handcuffs on people who do not want to be arrested. They must defend themselves from people who are threatening and even assaultive.
Not all police use of force is problematic. Determining and evaluating whether it is excessive/unnecessary – from a legal standpoint – is based on case law, specifically from the US Supreme Court and departmental policy. Community standards or the way select members of the public view use of force are not particularly relevant in court, during administrative hearings, or any other venue besides the court of public opinion.
According to a few studies, many who categorize themselves as liberal hold unreasonable perceptions of police use of force. Unreasonable because their opinions of the use of force are incompatible with the legal and professional standards that serve as the evaluative tools to determine if force is justified and within the bounds of law and/or policy. For example, there is a sizeable group of Americans who believe that it is never appropriate for police officers to strike a citizen – even when a person is attacking an officer. There is some evidence that peoples’ unreasonable perceptions of police use of force have gotten worse over time.
The “black-on-black crime” whataboutism is the most toxic deflection tactic in the discussion of race, crime, and policing. It has intensified over the last few years in response to the growth in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Black-on-black crime is not an entirely separate phenomenon but closely related to problematic policing. Police in America, historically, engaged in over- and as well as under-enforcement of the law against Black Americans. They were used as the enforcement arm of unjust, racist, and discriminatory laws, such as “Black Codes” and “Jim Crow” through the 1960s. Additionally, police failed to protect Black people from racial violence. The Equal Justice Initiative, using historical records and newspaper archives, uncovered more than 4,400 racial terror lynchings between 1877 and 1950. The perpetrators were rarely, if ever, investigated, arrested, or prosecuted.
The consequences of this combination of over- and under-enforcement of the law – not to mention hundreds of years of slavery and institutionalized racism – have led to Black Americans holding negative perceptions of the police and the justice system more broadly. Furthermore, there is generational inequality limits their access to legitimate employment opportunities, family structure, the economics of place, and ultimately crime and violence plagues minority communities disproportionately. People are less likely to call the police to report crime or victimization as well as provide information and serve as witnesses. Arrests are not made and clearance rates for homicides and non-fatal shootings involving Black victims are lower than that of white victims.
That legal cynicism leads people to engage in self-help in the form of retaliatory violence and settling disputes themselves rather than invoking the police.
“Just A Few Bad Apples”
Using and repeating phrases such as “it’s just a few bad apples” is highly problematic. Officers are influenced by the departments and the units they work in. Lax administrative policies governing the use of force and other discretionary behavior as well as ineffective supervision and disciplinary structures contribute to poor policing.
There are also legitimate, systemic impediments to police reform. Select laws and collective bargaining agreements between unions and jurisdictions hide officers’ personnel files from public view (including prosecutors). It also allows departments to purge records of citizen complaints and use of force after a certain amount of time. It impedes overall accountability.
As such, there are officers still on the job who cannot be fired although prosecutors refuse to have them testify due to misconduct and other integrity violations. The lack of mandatory national reporting measures creates wandering officers or those who are fired or forced to resign, who are able to gain employment at other departments.
The Job of Police
Little of the job of police has to do with crime, and even less with violent crime. Take a look at any police department’s records management system or calls for service data and you will notice that responding to violent crime makes up a small percentage – usually less than 5%. Much of officers’ time is spent dealing with problems that have little or nothing to do with crime. This means that there is at least room for envisioning a smaller law enforcement footprint in matters of mental health, homelessness, etc. Alternatives to policing for select social problems should not be dismissed outright.
Efforts for Police Accountability
Not every effort towards police accountability will jeopardize public and officer safety. The two are not a zero-sum game where movement or gains in one are to the detriment of the other. This false dichotomy has been presented in nearly every major change in policing for over fifty years – from the due process revolution in the Supreme Court in the 1960s to the changes in administrative policy restricting officers’ use of firearms to only defense of life situations. In all cases, the pessimistic and cynical speculation that crime control efforts would be impeded or that officer safety would be compromised was never borne out.
Crime rates are not exclusively influenced by the police and the criminal justice system as a whole. Crime is complex and driven by a multitude of factors outside law enforcement and the court system. The justice system and police play particular roles, but attributing increases in crime solely to low police morale or progressive prosecutors is incorrect and harmful to public policy decisions.
Recognition of the flaws, biases, and preconceptions in each of our ways of thinking about crime and policing is the first step before any type of political compromise can be made.