Guess What? We Need More Police in Urban Neighborhoods, Arresting More People 

Police officers stand guard during a protest against the death of George Floyd in New York City, June 5, 2020. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)
Shootings and other crimes spike in the poorest neighborhoods when cops pull back.

New York City needs more arrests. More arrests in the subways. More arrests in housing projects. More drug arrests. More arrests of gang members.

And it isn’t alone.

If there’s one lesson from the unrest and anti-police agitation in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, it’s that poor minorities living in distressed neighborhoods pay the highest price — in fear and in blood — when the cops retreat and the worst elements feel emboldened.

The spikes in shootings in cities around the country haven’t taken place in high-end neighborhoods, not in Billionaire’s Row in Manhattan, not in Buckhead in Atlanta, not in Forest Glen in Chicago.

No, they blight the most marginal neighborhoods and make everyday life a hazard for people who have no option but to live in a tough place. The last couple of months should have made it obvious that what these people have to fear most is not the cops or white supremacy but the violent, vengeful, and heedless young men in their midst.

Stopping or discouraging the cops from disproportionately policing these neighborhoods isn’t a blow for justice. It’s an obstacle for upstanding, low-income citizens who are trying to lead decent lives and shouldn’t have to routinely hear gunshots or worry every day about their kids getting shot.

Consider New York City. The New York Times ran an extensive piece the other day on the spike in shootings in the city. Clearly, a driver of the violence is a marked reduction in arrests:

Arrests have declined drastically this summer, falling 62 percent across the board for the last four weeks compared with the same period last year, police data show. Narcotics arrests fell 85 percent. Detectives in the gang unit made 90 percent fewer arrests. There were similarly steep drops in the number of arrests by officers that patrol the subways and housing projects.

Gun arrests have dropped 67 percent during the same four weeks compared with last year, even as shootings have continued to spiral upward.

So what we’ve seen is a crude version of Black Lives Matter policing — a “defund the police” approach, in which many fewer African-American males are arrested. Has this made heavily African-American communities better or safer? Emphatically not.

The story is the same in cities around the country. The equation is simple: A less robust police presence equals more shootings.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Ninety-three people were shot in Atlanta during the four-week period of May 31 to June 27, up drastically from 46 in the same period last year, the latest complete data available. And fourteen people died of homicide in that span, compared to six during the same time frame in 2019.”

Why? “‘There seems to be withdrawal by police,’ said Russell Covey, Georgia State University criminal law professor. ‘The lack of a police presence may create something of a vacuum of authority.’” The president of the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers agreed that there’s been a pullback. “Officers are afraid to do their job,” he said.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported late last month, “So far this year, ShotSpotter activations and 911 calls about gunshots in Minneapolis have more than doubled from a year ago, according to a Star Tribune analysis of police data. Out of 3,218 such shots-fired calls this year, nearly half have been filed since George Floyd was killed on May 25.”

Amazingly enough according to the paper, “Some council members and activists see the focus on crime stats as a way to stoke public fears and distract from the issue of police reform.” In other words, don’t let the number of people getting shot distract you from the need to kneecap the peace officers necessary to keep people from getting shot.

We don’t need to settle here the dispute over why there is now a less robust police presence in urban neighborhoods. Is it a function of the cops being overwhelmed by work related to the protests on top of their ordinary duties? Are cops overly cautious because of the anti-cop hostility of elected officials? Are they engaging in a deliberate work-slowdown? All of the above?

What matters at the most basic level is that if there are fewer cops arresting fewer dangerous people, shootings go up.

This dynamic should put paid to the lazy analysis that says that disproportionate police interactions with minorities must be a result of racist policing. It’s the opposite: Only people who have no regard for the welfare of poor communities would want fewer, less active cops patrolling them.

An expression of this simplistic way of thinking, by the way, was New York City’s decision to disband a plainclothes anti-crime unit that was involved in controversial shootings. Maybe this was because the unit was out of control. But maybe it was because it was engaged in the hard work of keeping communities from being overrun by gangs and illegal guns.

Indeed, the unit was reportedly responsible for 50 percent of gun arrests in 2019, and some community leaders are now calling for its reinstatement.

(In response to the spate of violence, New York City has launched a new initiative that, in part, puts more cops on the streets of violence-plagued areas of Brooklyn.)

Of course, it’s true that bad cops should be held to account, and the police should have the best relationship possible with the communities they serve. This can and should happen without exposing vulnerable people to the depredations of dangerous malefactors the way we’ve seen in recent weeks.

People who live in the affected communities know this and, to their credit, often say it. But their voices don’t get the megaphone of anti-police agitators. The cultural gatekeepers in our country could elevate them and highlight the rise in shootings as a direct threat to black lives.

The media could drive home their concerns, not simply in straight news accounts, but with the sympathetic wall-to-wall coverage of the protestors. Celebrities could take up their cause. Corporations could shower little-known activists desperately trying to improve the lot of their neighborhoods with resources.

But, no, this isn’t the narrative these gatekeepers are interested in — for them, black lives can only be put at risk by the cops, never made more secure and safe.



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