Defund police is a bad idea, not a bad slogan

Americans need high-quality, accountable policing, not budget cuts or abolition

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Today I wanted to talk about defunding the police, a topic on which I have an opinion that is both banal and controversial — it’s a bad idea.

Barack Obama recently rekindled interest in the topic by telling Peter Hamby that he thinks defund activists were making a strategic or tactical error: “You lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done. The key is deciding, do you want to actually get something done, or do you want to feel good among the people you already agree with?”

That’s what I would say about the post-2016 tendency of young people who support a larger welfare state to characterize their politics as “socialism” — a politically counterproductive fad that undermines a perfectly reasonable idea. But it’s not what I would say about “defund the police.” That’s a bad idea, not a bad slogan.

“Defund the police” was pretty successful

The whole meme that this was somehow a bad or ineffective slogan seems to me to not take the defund project seriously enough. The point of defund the police, after all, was not to help Democrats win elections — it was to defund the police.

In the immediate wake of George Floyd’s death, there was a widespread but largely non-specific desire to do something about police abuses in particular and anti-Black racism in general. That conversation could have gone in a lot of different directions. But defund activists successfully kept policing near the center of the anti-racism conversation, and kept the idea of cutting police funding absolutely at the center of the police reform conversation. In the early days, a rival activist campaign called 8 Can’t Wait that focused on operational changes to police procedures got a lot of attention. But defund successfully crowded them out, and owned the brand that if you were really hard-core about antiracism, you’d be for defunding.

A whole bill full of police reforms passed the US House of Representatives and received only a tiny fraction of the attention that was paid to defunding.

Thanks in part to the hard work of defund police activists, no Republicans who opposed that measure faced any heat over it. Instead, heat was applied to mayors and city council members in progressive cities, and the aim of the heat was to get them to enact cuts in police funding. In some cities this policy was adopted and in others it wasn’t. But in terms of what activists can achieve, it went pretty well. They dominated the conversation. They put their idea on the agenda. And they won some successes.

The problem with all of this isn’t that the strategy didn’t work, it’s that the strategy is bad.

Cutting police funding doesn’t fix what’s broken

On Twitter the other day, I characterized defund police as reflecting an austerity mindset. Jamelle Bouie offered an alternate explanation that once I read it expressed the contours of the argument much better.

The basic critique here is that American police departments:

  • Dish out too much violence with too little accountability.

  • Are not effective enough at solving serious crimes.

This seems mostly correct to me, and it’s why you won’t see me flying any Blue Lives Matter flags — there are serious flaws with American policies.

But cutting your city’s police budget is not going to make the police more effective at catching murderers. And it’s also not going to make officers more accountable for wrongdoing. To make officers more accountable for wrongdoing, you need to adopt some kind of measures that make them more accountable. Defund activists don’t oppose increased accountability, of course. But both the 8 Can’t Wait agenda and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that the House passed focused on accountability. Defunders shifted the conversation off that toward defunding. But a non-accountable police department with 10 percent less money is still a non-accountable police department.

Marc The Intern put together this chart that compares how many police officers per capita a city has to how many people per capita are killed by the police department (violence data is 2013-2019 courtesy of Mapping Police Violence; officer data is from the FBI in 2018). You can see there’s no relationship between the size of a department and how much deadly violence it doles out.

Now of course what we really want to know is how many unjustified killings are happening. But unfortunately there’s no widely accepted index of that.

What you see here is that the biggest department relative to the size of its population by far is in Washington, DC (which I assume involves officers doing some capital-specific work of some kind) and it’s a middling department in terms of police killings. The St. Louis Police Department (the dot at the top) is dishing out a ton more deadly violence than any other city, without St. Louis being a particularly heavily policed city.

So again, far from being a failure as a slogan, “defund police” has been a very successful slogan — it’s gotten us all focused on police department budgets as a key lever to reducing misconduct, even though it doesn’t particularly seem related to the issue at hand.

More cops, less violent crime

Bouie mentioned the low clearance rate for violent crimes in America, which is something that’s come up in a lot of discussions over the past few months.

I think there are a few things to say about this. One is that changes matter at the margin. The police in DC closed 66 percent of murders in 2018 which was less than the 71 percent they closed in 2017. If that number just kept heading down from 66 percent to 61 percent to 56 percent to 51 percent, that would be change for the worse. And it seems to me that there’s pretty good reason to believe that if you cut funding for homicide investigations, you’d solve fewer murders. Of course, you could make a small cut in a police department's budget while insulating homicide investigations. But the more dramatic the cuts you ask for, the harder it is to insulate useful investigations. And to the extent that we want the police to solve a larger share of violent crimes, it looks like they need more resources, not fewer.

Cook et. al. did a study of shooting investigations in Boston and they found that homicides attract significantly more investigative resources in terms of person-hours spent on the case than non-fatal shootings. They also found that homicides are significantly more likely to be solved than non-fatal shootings, basically in direct proportion to the person-hours spent on investigating them. So if we are frustrated by police departments’ limited success at solving crimes, one natural solution would be to give them more money to hire more detectives.

Of course most police officers are not detectives; they’re uniform cops doing patrol work. And the evidence across a large range of studies is that having more officers on patrol leads to less crime, including violent crime. Not because the beat cops solve crime, but because their presence deters it.

There is a lot of different research on this, but one paper that is directly relevant to our current political situation is Steven Mello’s look at police funding in Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill:

I exploit a natural experiment to estimate the causal effect of police on crime. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act increased funding for the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) hiring grant program from less than $20 million over 2005-2008 to $1 billion in 2009. Hiring grants distributed in 2009 were allocated according to an application score cutoff rule, and I leverage quasi-random variation in grant receipt by comparing the change over time in police and crimes for cities above and below the threshold in a difference in differences framework. Relative to low-scoring cities, those above the cutoff experience increases in police of about 3.2% and declines in victimization cost-weighted crime of about 3.5% following the distribution of hiring grants. The effects are driven by large and statistically significant effects of police on robbery, larceny, and auto theft, with suggestive evidence that police reduce murders as well. Crime reductions associated with additional police were more pronounced in areas most affected by the Great Recession. The results highlight that fiscal support to local governments for crime prevention may offer large returns, especially during bad macroeconomic times.

A big part of what’s been happening in American politics recently is that Democrats in Congress have been fighting for federal aid to state and local governments and Republicans have been opposing this. I think we have very solid evidence that the last federal “fund the police” push was a big success in policy terms, and it’s an idea Democrats should have more explicitly championed in this debate.

Better policing will cost more money

Beat cops are effective at reducing crime, and investing money in hiring them is worthwhile. Investigative cops also appear to be at least somewhat effective at solving violent crimes, and investing money in hiring more more of them would lead to higher clearance rates.

But that would still leave us with the core concern that too many police officers are able to get away with misconduct with impunity.

To solve this, we need to change the rules and make it easier to fire cops. It’s not good enough to wait for the most egregious incidents and then try to charge police officers as criminals. There needs to be a higher standard of routine conduct, where people who don’t do the right thing get disciplined and drummed out. And the practice of abusive officers shuffling from one department to another also needs to stop. This is a question primarily of changing state law to repeal or modify Police Bill of Rights legislation and the content of union collective bargaining agreements.

And if you fired more bad cops and wanted to replace them with new and better cops (and of course retain already good officers), then realistically you’d probably need to pay more. It would be a very normal change of the basic employment bargain — a higher standard of conduct with less job security, but in exchange you get better pay.

Politically speaking, that will be a hard task given the clout of police unions. But to accomplish it, you’d need to try to accomplish it, instead of having all your energy going to pushing cities to cut budgets. We have a couple of case studies of successful police department reform efforts. But when you read what happened in Richmond, CA for example (courtesy of Zaid Jilani), you don’t find defunding on the menu. Or you could look at Camden, New Jersey, which disbanded its entire department and started from scratch. Out of over 1,500 American cities with over 25,000 residents, Camden is now third in police officers per capita. To have a better department you want more cops, not fewer.

Of course we should fund social services

Given the success of “defund police” at taking over the narrative after Floyd’s death, there’s been surprisingly little journalistic interest in its origins. An honorable exception to that is Jenna Wortham, who in August profiled the Black Visions Collective, a small Minnesota-based group that capitalized on the outrage over Floyd to push defunding into the mainstream conversation:

Black Visions was established three years ago as a political and community base for Black people in Minneapolis. It regularly orchestrates rallies like the one in Powderhorn Park and for years has done the mundane municipal work of protesting budgets and holding public educational sessions on policy issues — focusing on police violence in particular and taking care to contextualize it within a broader system of racism. When Floyd’s death thrust Minneapolis into the national spotlight, Black Visions drew attention as a Black-led group with deep ties to queer, immigrant and transgender communities, and it became the default local organization to support. Links to its donation page materialized on countless resource lists and Instagram Stories, funneling a staggering total of $30 million to the group.

The immediate priority for Black Visions members became to publicly pressure city officials on defunding the local Police Department. They had been working on it privately for years, and Floyd’s death only accelerated the urgency. Offline, they were holding nightly calls with City Council representatives, sending them research materials and enlisting allies to do the same, all in an attempt to persuade them that reforms were no longer adequate — an entirely new system needed to be imagined. As a calculated next step, the group invited them to make their commitments known at a rally.

And they were very clear that the point of their organizing around the police funding issue was not to make a marginal shift in fiscal priorities, but to build support for police abolition.

Mariame Kaba, an activist for the abolition of police and prisons, wrote an op-ed helpfully titled “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police” and the Sunrise Movement also explained that “defunding the police is just one step toward abolition.”

The chain of events around Black Visions getting that huge influx of money is that the initial wave of protests sparked nationwide interest in supporting a local bail fund, the Minneapolis Freedom Fund, which was swiftly swamped with contributions, so they recommended Black Visions as a group to donate to.

According to Gallup, about 22 percent of Black Americans support police abolition. And while, as Wortham wrote, Black Visions’ position “as a Black-led group with deep ties to queer, immigrant and transgender communities” was ideal for appealing to a national constituency of young progressive activists, there was little reason to believe it was particularly representative of Black opinion in the Twin Cities. Indeed, subsequent polling showed that reducing the size of the Minneapolis Police Department was even more unpopular with local Black voters than with local white ones.

But the abolitionists were very successful in owning the brand of “people who care a lot about racial justice.” And most liberals care a lot about racial justice. So the thing to do if you don’t want to be a contentious internet figure is to take some sensible liberal idea and say that’s a form of defunding police.

Many people have, for example, been advocating for creating a civilian corps of mental health crisis responders who could take over certain activities from the police.

That’s a perfectly reasonable idea, especially for larger cities that can logistically maintain rapid dispatch capabilities for multiple overlapping services. But this isn’t at all “just one step toward abolition.” The police officers I know in my neighborhood say that they very much want the city to invest in non-police solutions to the homelessness problem. Of course those officers don’t want the money for those homelessness programs to come out of the police budget. So every city needs to have a conversation about its fiscal priorities. My personal preference would be for DC to rezone for much more market rate construction in expensive neighborhoods, which would directly ameliorate the housing situation but also generate a gusher of new tax revenue that could be used to finance more robust public services of all kinds.

Speaking of which, my friend Annie Lowrey wrote a column in June titled “Defund the Police” that turned out to be a broad call to establish a European-style welfare state:

The distinctions are stark when comparing America with its peer nations. The U.S. spends 18.7 percent of its annual output on social programs, compared with 31.2 percent by France and 25.1 percent by Germany. It spends just 0.6 percent of its GDP on benefits for families with children, one-sixth of what Sweden spends and one-third the rich-country average. It spends far more on health care than these other countries, notably, but for a broken, patchy, and inequitable system, one that leaves people dying without care and bankrupts many of those who do get it.

Obviously, though, the difference between the US and European welfare states isn’t that they’ve abolished police in Europe. It’s that taxes are higher. Another friend of mine, Eric Levitz, put this gently in a June 12 column titled “Defunding the Police Is Not Nearly Enough.” The less polite way to put it would be that defunding the police is basically irrelevant to the welfare state conversation. The United States has many more prisoners and prison guards than the typical country, but about a third fewer police officers than average.

Cutting the police budget is neither necessary nor sufficient to create a more generous welfare state — to get a more generous welfare state, we need to spend more money on social programs and over the long term, we need to tax more too. We should reduce incarceration, in part to save money, but mostly because incarceration is cruel and we should use it as little as possible. But simply cutting police budgets will not address the excessive cruelty that exists in American policing.

We need accountable policing

What drives me a little bit nuts about the liberal sanewashing of “defund police” into this idea about mental health services, is that while it’s true cities should provide better mental health services, that would not have helped George Floyd at all.

Floyd was not a person in mental health crisis whose case should have been dealt by some agency other than law enforcement. He’s a guy who allegedly tried to pass a counterfeit $20, so he got arrested. But one of the arresting officers killed him and the others stood around and did not intervene. That’s really bad! That’s why everyone was outraged! Police officers should not carelessly kill people who are accused of minor crimes. Police officers should not be idle bystanders when their colleagues are doing something dangerous and cruel.

We need policy reforms that address the actual problem here. That means operational changes to the rules about how cops are supposed to behave. It means structural changes to the job security of officers with spotty records. And it means a sustained ongoing effort to dislodge the warrior cop ideology and replace it with an ethic of public service.

The fact that defund police activists managed to draw attention away from the idea of changes that would have averted Floyd’s death to their own project is an impressive triumph on their part, not some kind of tactical failure. The problem with it is that their project is bad — likely to lead to more violent crime (and eventually a backlash against the concept of criminal justice reform) and unlikely to reduce police misconduct.