Cities Need Better Policing — Not Depolicing and Riots

NYPD officers stand guard as people take part in a protest against the death of George Floyd, in Brooklyn, New York City, June 3, 2020. (Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters)
Once the riots are suppressed, focus on reform.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he fallout from the last week’s rioting could rain down upon us for a long time. There will be lasting damage to the neighborhoods where the looting and vandalism took place.

Simultaneously, the peaceful protesters whose work was undermined by violent anarchists and greedy opportunists are correct. American cops can do better, and improving policing could prevent future unrest.

Once the riots have been squelched, the conversation should focus on how cops can do better. And, contrary to the calls for “defunding” or “abolishing” the police, cops do not get better results simply by doing less. They get better results when they apply proven crime-reduction techniques and are held to account when they abuse their power.

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On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal ran a saddening account of what happened to Philadelphia’s 52nd Street corridor, where small businesses — many minority-owned — were getting ready to reopen after a shutdown but ended up smashed to pieces and looted instead. Some may never reopen now.

This, completely unsurprisingly, is what riots do. In a pair of studies released in the mid 2000s, William J. Collins and Robert A. Margo found that the race riots of the 1960s did lasting damage in several ways. They found that the riots “depressed the median value of black-owned property between 1960 and 1970, with little or no rebound in the 1970s.” And they found suggestive evidence that the riots “had negative effects on blacks’ income and employment that were economically significant and that may have been larger in the long run (1960-1980) than in the short run (1960-1970).”

In another paper, Victor A. Matheson and Robert A. Baade found that the 1992 Rodney King riots “not only reduced taxable sales in the city immediately following the unrest, but that this social catastrophe has had a lasting impact on the economic performance” of Los Angeles.

And this most recent wave of unrest, dating back to the Ferguson and Baltimore riots several years ago, comes at what should be a good time for cities. Led by New York City during the 1990s, the country’s urban areas have made tremendous progress in holding crime rates down, and as a result they’ve become economically and culturally vibrant powerhouses. But the middle class and especially the rich can live wherever they want. If cities become unsafe again, they will head out to the suburbs and exurbs, taking their tax dollars with them.

And yes, policing — specifically good policing — played a role in the crime decline, and thus in the dramatic improvement of urban America. New York’s strategy of tracking crime trends and sending cops to areas where crime is spiking works. Everyone from the libertarian-leaning economist Alex Tabarrok to the liberal Vox writer Matthew Yglesias has written about the evidence we have that increasing police presence tends to decrease crime.

Non-policing has the opposite effect. Forthcoming research from Ronald Fryer and Tanaya Devi finds that, as Jason Riley recently summarized, “When police were investigated following incidents of deadly force that had gone viral, police activity declined and violent crime spiked. It happened in Ferguson, Mo., after Michael Brown was shot by an officer. It happened in Chicago after a cop gunned down Laquan McDonald. And it occurred in Baltimore after Freddie Gray died in police custody.”

As the Harvard criminologist Thomas Abt detailed in his book Bleeding Out (which I reviewed here), experts have come to support two crime-cutting strategies especially, because they’ve performed well in rigorous tests: “hot spot” policing, which, like New York’s strategy, relies on deploying police to the areas where crime is up, and “focused deterrence,” which 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.

There is also a strong case that detectives and prosecutors must do a better job of holding the worst offenders — murderers — accountable after the fact. This not only incapacitates the worst offenders, but also builds up the legitimacy of law enforcement, so that communities are willing to let the justice system work. Without that, crime victims and their families and friends are more likely to seek retribution themselves, as Jill Leovy detailed in her excellent book Ghettoside.

This is not some crazy right-wing fantasy of police imposing order; it’s evidence-based policing, and polling data show it’s highly in demand among the public. Defunding the police has little support in surveys, but hiring more cops and sending them to high-crime areas has plenty. Black Americans are the racial group most likely to want additional cops in their own neighborhoods. 38 percent support an increased police presence, and only 10 percent want fewer cops around, despite the fact that a majority of blacks think cops treat them unfairly. A desire for more policing reaches an outright majority (of all races) in the areas Gallup designates as “fragile.”

The members of American society most exposed to crime don’t want less policing; they want better policing.

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In addition to doing more good things, of course, police should do fewer bad things as well. I am of the opinion that the overwhelming majority of cops do their jobs in good faith, and that the overwhelming majority of police killings are justified. But when you arm people and send them out into a community to enforce the law, you have to train them properly and hold them accountable. Otherwise they lose legitimacy, and every ambiguous incident becomes a recipe for anti-cop backlash.

All four officers involved in George Floyd’s death have been arrested and charged. Good. But there are policy changes we could make to ensure that bad cops are more frequently held to account, while continuing to give officers a fair chance to provide their side of the story.

Earlier this week, for example, I wrote about the doctrine of “qualified immunity,” which too frequently protects rogue police officers from being held liable for civil damages in federal court. Congress should change this policy, and there are efforts underway to do so.

States should also take a hard look at their criminal laws. Many states have use-of-force statutes that are embarrassingly out of date. Lawmakers might also think about how best to address situations in which an officer’s behavior and tactics leading up to a shooting were inexcusably flawed, but do not justify a murder or manslaughter charge.

States’ relationships with police unions need another look as well. Police unions don’t just negotiate pay, benefits, and normal working conditions. They also have a say in, for example, how officers are interrogated after using force — and they secure privileges for officers that other crime suspects do not get. Some unions even procure for officers “get-out-of-jail-free cards” they can dole out to family and friends to escape speeding tickets.

Lastly, we need to continually improve standard procedures and training, and to encourage departments to adopt the best practices. Departments differ in terms of what kinds of neck holds they allow in which situations, for instance, and many neck restraints can kill people unnecessarily. Regions of the country also vary immensely in terms of how often their officers resort to lethal force, even after accounting for crime rates, suggesting room for improvements.

Teaching cops the best ways to deescalate situations is always a good idea where it’s not already happening (and judging from the numerous videos of cops interacting with protesters recently, it’s not happening everywhere). Making sure cops fired from one department can’t easily end up somewhere else is a no-brainer. Heck, even Joe Biden’s idea of shooting unarmed threats in the legs instead of the torso might make sense in certain very specific situations. It would be worth funding a lot of research into the efficacy and dangers of all these tactics and more, and using the results to guide policy.

We can’t just keep having race riots every so many years in this country, and we can’t tell the police to stand down in the face of crime and disorder, either. Instead, we should build up the legitimacy of the police through proven crime-fighting strategies and a better system of accountability.

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