The Myths Holding Back Police Reform

17 minute read
Gross is a professor of sociology at Colby College and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center in Washington, DC. He is the author of Walk the Walk: How Three Police Chiefs Defied the Odds and Changed Cop Culture.

As the months have ticked by since the brutal January 2023 killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, the problems with policing in this country have largely receded from the headlines. Before the next crisis—and at the end of a summer that marks the ten-year anniversary of the Black Lives Matter movement—we should take a moment to reconsider the terms of the national debate over police reform.

As with much of public life these days, the conversation around policing has become intensely polarized, pitting the small percentage of Americans who favor literally abolishing the police against an equally small number who insist that policing is perfect as is. Although both camps have prolific and vocal supporters, neither comes close to representing the views of the average American voter, who prefers meaningful but not radical police reform and whose perspective often seems to have been left out of the debate.

As a former cop and now a sociologist, I’ve puzzled over how we got here and how we might turn things around. As I’ve spoken to public audiences over the last few years and taught courses to undergraduates, I’ve encountered three widely held but false or misleading beliefs about the police that underlie polarization on the issue. Clearing away these misunderstandings could lead to more productive conversations and policymaking.

Myth #1: The police can’t prevent crime

Attorney and organizer Andrea J. Ritchie, who co-wrote the abolitionist tract No More Police with activist Mariame Kaba, expressed this position when she told The Guardian last year, “the police are not producing safety. They are not preventing or interrupting violence.”

Although I can understand why some people might feel this way—if you live in a neighborhood with persistent crime and what seems like an oppressive police presence, say—research shows that the opposite is true. All else being equal, the larger the number of police officers in an area, the less crime there tends to be, at least for many kinds of crime.

In a study from 2020, for example, criminologist Aaron Chalfin and colleagues found that every ten additional police officers employed by a city prevents about one homicide annually. (This finding did not hold in cities where more than 27 percent of the population identified as Black, however.) Analyzing data on almost 7,000 municipalities, economist Emily Weisburst (one of the coauthors of the study by Dr. Chalfin) likewise discovered in 2019 that “a 10% increase in police employment… reduces violent crime rates by 13% and property crime rates by 7%.” A visible police presence can also bring down traffic accidents.

The reason is simple: few potential law breakers will commit crimes when the cops are around, meaning that the police may have a deterrent effect. While random patrols aren’t terribly effective, newer, more efficient strategies for police deployment, including “hot spot” approaches that zero in on the places where crime is most likely to occur, multiply policing’s deterrent benefits. Better staffed departments with more detectives also solve more crimes, affecting the certainty of punishment, another key element of deterrence.

Some crimes, like mass shootings, aren’t as responsive to police presence. (Research shows that many mass shooters intend to die during the commission of their crimes, and so are not easily deterred—although when police are able to respond quickly, they may be able to neutralize a shooter before he causes further casualties.) And the crime suppression gains from having cops on the street must always be weighed against potential costs, such as the prospect that people will be harassed, arrested for unimportant “quality of life” offenses, or hurt, with negative consequences for mental health, the educational performance of kids (Black male teenagers in particular, who are disproportionately targeted by police), and more. Better policing—for example, policing that does not rely on blanket “stop, question, and frisk” tactics—can mitigate these negative consequences.

But as to whether police can prevent crime, the answer is yes.

At the same time, the police are not the only way to prevent crime. Consider the massive, nationwide drop in both violent and property crime that began in the 1990s and continued until recently. While police chiefs like Bill Bratton took credit for this, and while an increase in the number of police officers per capita funded by the 1994 crime bill was part of the story, other factors were probably more important. Among them were the coming of age of adolescents and young adults who’d been brought up in a period of tighter environmental regulation, limiting their exposure to lead, which compromises impulse control; growth in community nonprofits, which, as the sociologist Patrick Sharkey has found, helped reknit the social fabric of neighborhoods devastated by job loss due to structural changes in the economy; and significant increases in immigration (immigration being associated with lower rates of criminal offending, contrary to the claims of its opponents).

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That doesn’t imply that interventions tied to these factors are the only way to drive crime down further, or to counter the crime spike we’ve witnessed over the last few years. (More on that spike below.) Some of the strategies currently popular in progressive circles, such as scaling up social services, decriminalizing narcotics use, and employing civilian “violence interrupters” to mediate conflict among disputing individuals and groups, might prove effective in this regard, though the scientific jury is still out. Given that serious street crime is often rooted in poverty and social marginalization, poverty reduction efforts, from expanding the housing supply and thus lowering rental prices to business investment aimed at job growth to more radical proposals like a universal basic income, could also be useful over the long-haul. But these efforts are most likely to produce safe streets when coupled with professional, respectful policing, not with an absence of police.

Myth #2: Police reform compromises public safety

It’s already becoming clear that crime and policing will be major issues in the 2024 presidential campaign, with Republicans doing their best to paint Democrats as soft on crime. Before he announced his candidacy, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis traveled to Staten Island, New York, home to thousands of cops and firefighters, to proclaim his support for law enforcement. “The foundation of Florida’s success,” he said, “has been a commitment to law and order and support for the men and women who wear the uniform.” Amid the unrest of 2020, DeSantis continued, woke Democratic politicians had succumbed to demands from the radical left to defund and hamstring the police, sending crime rates soaring in blue cities. DeSantis, by contrast, signed into law a bill in 2021 that would restore police funding to any Sunshine State municipality that dared to follow suit. The result, he said, was that crime rates in Florida had reached a fifty year low. The implication was obvious: if you meddle with policing, you’ll get more crime.

Protesters block traffic as they rally against the fatal police assault of Tyre Nichols, in Venice, California, on January 29, 2023. - The US city of Memphis on January 28 disbanded the special police unit whose officers fatally beat a young Black man, after graphic video of the assault sparked widespread shock and outrage. The video, which shows five officers repeatedly kicking and punching 29-year-old Tyre Nichols as he moans and calls out for his mother, triggered calls for police reform. Agustin PAULLIER-AFP

DeSantis’s speech made for good political theater, but it didn’t square well with reality. In 2020, Democratic politicians in a number of big cities, including Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, did vote to reallocate a portion of funding from police department budgets to other areas. But much of this reallocation never happened, and by 2021 nearly all the cities on the list had restored or grown their police budgets. So if crime soared during this time, it can’t primarily be a result of defunding. (President Biden has opposed police defunding and called for the hiring of more officers.)

But are crime rates soaring? It’s complicated. Take homicide. The US homicide rate rose significantly in 2020—by about 30 percent over 2019 levels—before flattening out in 2021. About 21,500 Americans were murdered in that first pandemic year, an increase of almost five thousand from the year before. That is an unthinkable number of violent deaths to add on to the more than 350,000 Americans who lost their lives in 2020 from COVID-19. And the pain was not felt equally: more than half of those murdered were Black. Although the homicide rate had risen in 2015 and 2016 as well, the 2020 spike was the largest in decades. In most places homicides per capita remained well below what they were back in the 1990s, but some cities, such as Philadelphia, Albuquerque, Milwaukee, and Chicago, had as many victims (in absolute numbers) as ever before, or more, overwhelming the capacity of law enforcement. Especially in the impoverished, racially segregated neighborhoods where gun violence is concentrated, it was spot on to describe crime as soaring.

But, again, it’s complicated. Not all crime rose in tandem with homicide. The overall rate of violent crime went up by about 5.6 percent from 2019 to 2020—before falling slightly in 2021. (And, it seems, falling again in 2022, though the FBI hasn’t yet released its final report. There was also a change during this period in how police departments reported crime statistics to the federal government, so there is considerable uncertainty in the data.) On property crime, there’s been much discussion in the media of a wave of theft and other forms of lawlessness in progressive cities like San Francisco. Some urban areas have indeed been having a much harder time than others. Yet for the US as a whole, property crime has been sloping downward more or less uninterrupted since the early 1990s, as measured by official reports to police as well as anonymous victimization surveys.

And now, preliminary data from the largest US cities show a major drop in homicides for the first half of 2023. (Not for all cities. Violent crime in Washington, DC, for example, including homicide, is up this year.)

Social scientists don’t know what caused the murder spike of 2020. It could be the pandemic. It could be the rise in gun ownership that took place then. DeSantis and other conservatives blame progressive prosecutors, but research suggests that the election of progressive district attorneys had no appreciable effect on crime rates. Another possibility is that Black Lives Matter protests—for all the good they’ve done in prompting a racial reckoning throughout society—had indirect, unintended consequences for homicide.

One commonly invoked hypothesis to explain the bump in homicide numbers in 2015 was the so-called “Ferguson effect,” the theory that after the protests and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri (and then other cities) following the killing of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in 2014, something shifted in the urban landscape, increasing the probability of violence. Several studies at the time found support for this hypothesis, including one I carried out with the sociologist Marcus Mann. Our research showed that violent crime from 2014 to 2016 rose the most in cities that had the greatest number of Google searches for terms related to police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement, signaling greater concern with the issue. This concern—likely reflecting anger and frustration with local policing practices that the protests amplified—could have made police hesitant to engage in normal enforcement activities. Or it could have enhanced a perception among city residents that the police were not a legitimate institution, encouraging some to turn to violence as a way of handling disagreements and disputes. (More recent research highlights police illegitimacy as an explanation, though both factors appear to have been at play.)

Read More: Three Years After George Floyd, Police Culture Still Hasn't Changed

The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 were among the largest protests in American history, dwarfing those of 2014 and 2015 in size. Could a similar Ferguson effect dynamic have taken place in their wake? There are no conclusive studies on this yet, but there is strong evidence that in Minneapolis police pulled back their enforcement following George Floyd’s murder and the protests around it; and that in Denver, where a similar pull back occurred due to both protests and the pandemic, there was an associated rise in crime. Gun assaults on police officers coast-to-coast jumped to abnormally high levels in the three weeks after Mr. Floyd was killed.

The protests and subsequent calls for defunding also contributed to a wave of police resignations, and may now be making recruitment more difficult, potentially increasing crime by leaving fewer police on the street. But it is hard to disentangle the effects of anti-police sentiment here from the effects of a tight labor market. With an unemployment rate today of just 3.8 percent, recruitment in nearly every industry is a challenge (it’s been especially difficult to fill jobs in the public sector); and the last time unemployment was so low—right before the start of the pandemic, and before there was much talk of police defunding—police leaders were equally bemoaning the struggles of recruitment and retention.

The point in all this isn’t that Black Lives Matter protesters should have stayed home; public demonstrations are a natural and appropriate response to injustice. Rather, the onus is on police departments to weed out bad cops like Derek Chauvin, whose behavior can trigger chain reactions that impinge on public safety around the country.

Myth #3: Because of policing’s racist origins, there is nothing we can do to improve it

A common refrain of activists on the left is that because US policing originated in slave patrols, racism is built into its DNA, making real reform impossible. It is true that in the South, in New Orleans, Charleston, and elsewhere, we can trace the history of the municipal agencies that came to be called police departments to antebellum “city guard” units whose primary task was capturing enslaved Black people who had escaped and quelling slave rebellions. Throughout Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era, these agencies continued to enforce white supremacy, not least through their connections to the Ku Klux Klan.

Yet police departments elsewhere in the US sprang from different roots. Boston and New York, for example, established police departments with full-time, uniformed officers in the mid-nineteenth century for the same reason that European cities like Paris and London had done so earlier: urbanization generated crime and public disorder problems—along with mounting social anxieties—at a scale that previous, more informal systems of justice administration couldn’t handle. Problems like that track with inequality, so even in the North policing functioned to maintain hierarchies of race and class. But in a rapidly industrializing society with a racial caste system, most major social institutions, from the labor market to education, functioned in part to maintain those hierarchies. That this was true for policing doesn’t necessarily speak to whether it can be reformed along more racially equal lines today.

President Biden Signs Policing Executive Order
Flanked by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, lawmakers and cabinet members, U.S. President Joe Biden signs an executive order enacting further police reform in the East Room of the White House on May 25, 2022 in Washington, DC. President Biden's executive order is intends to improve police accountability and direct federal agencies to revise use-of-force policies, such as banning tactics like chokeholds. Anna Moneymaker-Getty Images

Anyone who doubts that institutions can evolve beyond their origins should consider American colleges, which began as conservative, all-male, and dedicated to providing future ministers with an education in classics and theology. Or look at state institutions and many large private enterprises in contemporary Germany, which were more or less successfully de-Nazified after World War II. Or the Democratic Party, for that matter, which defended segregation and white supremacy for nearly a century before becoming committed to civil rights. Although an institution’s founding and history can certainly shape its present performance, the fact is that institutions can and do change.

Policing, for its part, has transformed over the decades, as any historian of the subject can attest, and this is also true along the dimension of race. While stubborn racial disparities remain in use of force, arrest rates for petty offenses, routine traffic stops, internal hiring and promotion, and other aspects of police operations—disparities every department should work to minimize—and while horrific evidence of racial animus continues to surface with disturbing frequency, there can be no serious question that policing in 2023 looks very different than it did in, say, Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, when “Bull” Connor, the notoriously racist public safety commissioner, directed his officers and their dogs to viciously attack civil rights protesters because of his opposition to integration.

Nearly a third of police officers nationwide are now Latino, Black, or part of some other ethnic or racial minority group, as are more than half of big city chiefs. Diversifying police forces won’t fix everything—the cops who beat Tyre Nichols were Black—but the best research shows that Latino and Black (and female) cops use force less and are more selective in their stop and arrest behavior. Seasoned police veterans I’ve interviewed who are Black have told me how much police attitudes and conduct have changed during their years on the job, even if those officers are critical of current practices. And still further progress is possible.

An Example from Rural Georgia

It's an unusual case, but in LaGrange, Georgia, a majority Black town with a history of racism as shameful as any, a white police chief named Lou Dekmar fundamentally remade his department, upping hiring standards, putting in place a host of stringent policies, increasing training, and changing department culture. LaGrange PD today isn’t perfect, but it’s doing better than other departments at minimizing the use of force as well as racial disparities in traffic stops, and the department’s solve rate for homicides over the period 1995-2019 stood at an impressive 84 percent. (As journalist Jill Leovy has argued, the fact that police departments solve many fewer homicides when the victim is Black than when the victim is white is an important but neglected aspect of racial inequality.)

Back in 1940, LaGrange officers abetted the lynching of a Black teenager named Austin Callaway. In 2017 Dekmar apologized publicly for this despicable crime and his department’s role in it, using the occasion to emphasize to his cops the importance of equal treatment under the law. Most U.S. police agencies haven’t come as far as LaGrange PD. But that’s only to say that they need to be pushed harder to change. As I’ve written about elsewhere, visionary and tenacious police chiefs backed by politicians and everyday citizens are the often-overlooked key to successful reform.

Under Chief Dekmar’s tenure, crime in LaGrange fell by 50 percent before the pandemic hit. And that raises a final point that’s gotten lost in current conversations on criminal justice: there needn’t be a tradeoff between public safety and the quest for better policing. Smart approaches to police reform can produce more equitable and humane law enforcement that reduces crime.

Cops Explaining Themselves

Consider a study carried out in Tucson, Cambridge, and Houston by the criminologist David Weisburd and colleagues. Working with the local police departments, the researchers first identified crime hot spots in all three cities. Half of those areas were selected to be policed as normal, while the other half would be policed by cops trained in an approach called “procedural justice.” The theory behind procedural justice is that if cops are fair, equitable, reasonable, and communicative then people will perceive the procedures of law to be just. That should make them more likely to cooperate with authorities and to obey the law in the first place.

Members of the research team rode with the police, observing and taking notes on their behavior. They administered before and after surveys to people living in the hot spot areas. They found that the officers who received the procedural justice training treated citizens more respectfully and made fewer arrests for minor offenses; that citizens living where those cops policed felt less harassed and noticed less use of force; and that—remarkably—at the end of the study period crime was 14 percent lower in the areas that saw improved policing.

Procedural justice aims, in part, to change the culture of the police. Implementing it in departments with particularly troubled cultures and recalcitrant unions, like Minneapolis PD, is no easy feat. But it’s only one in a whole suite of reform strategies we know can be effective.

If we’re serious about achieving safety and justice, we need to get beyond hyper-partisan talking points. Policing isn’t going away anytime soon—nor should it—and the institution has real problems that need to be addressed. Let’s work together, in communities large and small, to get the job done.

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