The two parties in Washington are expected to have contentious policy disagreements, but in the latest partisan clash, they seem to agree. At a town hall on Wednesday, President Biden said that Republicans who claim they are the only pro-police party are “lying,” because he also supports law enforcement and opposes “defunding the police.” In fact, White House press secretary Jen Psaki and other Democrats have accused Republicans of defunding the police, after the GOP spent the last year lambasting progressive calls to do just that.
Psaki’s argument revolves around the American Rescue Plan, which sent relief money to states and localities. The bill made no mention of funding for the police, but local officials are now deciding to spend the funds on law enforcement amid a crime wave, and Democrats are eager to claim responsibility. Most observers recognize this messaging tactic as revisionist history. No Republican opposed the bill because it might someday help law enforcement, and many Democratic proponents of the legislation openly support defunding the police.
But this latest skirmish in the “defund” debate belies something more hopeful — everyone (or almost everyone) inside the Beltway wants to fund the police. And since the funding for law enforcement that is a byproduct of the American Rescue Plan will not last forever, lawmakers should seize this opportunity to formalize, extend, and expand federal support for police, with a singular focus on fighting crime.
The Biden administration’s recent guidance on the use of relief money does bolster federal backing of law enforcement, but future funding efforts should do more to prioritize effective strategies. The plan touts Community Violence Intervention programs, which “intervene in conflicts, and connect people to social, health and wellness, and economic services” and can “reduce homicides by up to 60 percent.” But the report cited by the White House found that only a very specific type of program, called Group Violence Intervention or “focused deterrence,” achieved these remarkable outcomes.
This approach does not just direct would-be killers to social services. Under these programs, networks of young men involved in cycles of criminal activity are offered both a carrot (social aid) and a stick: the prospect of forceful prosecution for any future violence, and law-enforcement attention on the entire group if any of them continue to perpetrate violent crime. For fear of upsetting progressives, it seems, the White House conveniently makes no mention of this crucial tool as it allocates its relief money. A longer-term federal-funding measure could explicitly fund focused-deterrence programs, as well as the prosecutorial resources needed to back them up.
The White House’s focus on reducing the supply of illicit guns with federal task forces also demonstrates misaligned priorities. Limiting criminals’ access to guns is notoriously difficult, while police departments across the country have a proven track record of success taking guns off the street after criminals have acquired them. A better federal approach to supporting law enforcement would fund “hot-spot” policing that sends more officer patrols to high-crime areas, where the most illegal guns can be confiscated — and most important, where chances are highest of taking likely shooters off the street. To give just one example, over the six months that this strategy was tried in Kansas City, cops who were exclusively looking for guns made 616 arrests and seized 65 percent more firearms, and homicides fell by 49 percent.
When it comes to putting more officers on the street, the administration has urged localities to use funds “to hire police officers . . . directly focused on advancing community policing strategies.” As discussed, there are useful community strategies, but right now, many departments have more urgent needs. For example, many localities would benefit most from increased resources for investigative units. As a recent report for the Manhattan Institute by Anthony Braga notes, only 47 percent of gun murders and 32 percent of nonfatal shootings were solved in 2020 in New York (which has one of the better rates among big cities), leaving many shooters on the street.
These low clearance rates, as they are called, are disturbingly common across the country. And when perpetrators walk free, the deterrent effect of the justice system is undermined by a growing awareness that crimes are likely to go unpunished. Worse yet, victims and those around them often take justice into their own hands to make up for perceived deficiencies of local police, perpetuating cycles of retaliatory violence. The Boston police department, however, has significantly improved clearance rates by focusing more resources on its investigative staff and support structures, partially funded by federal grants. On this issue, as with many others, the Biden administration may be open to increasing federal support for law enforcement — as long as it can transcend the narrow set of policing operations that are amenable to progressives. Ideally, new funding would meet the hiring needs of local departments, whatever they may be.
Though there is strong evidence behind focused deterrence, hot-spot policing, and strengthening investigative capacities, these are a few tools out of many, not panaceas for urban violence, and cities should use a range of new and existing strategies to fight crime. This would be easier if the federal government expanded its measly $7 million grant program for policing innovation and evidenced-based strategies and funded more research into the best practices for reducing urban violence.
Bipartisanship is rare these days, but there may be a political opening for a police-funding bill for the 21st century. Democrats seem to realize that funding the police is a winning issue, and they should use their current power accordingly. Republicans, for their part, might be skeptical of giving the Biden administration a big win on an anti-crime package, but serious legislators know that our cities and towns need their help. And it is not hard to imagine the possibility of a police-funding measure failing because progressive activists turn Democrats against it. It would be a loss for the country, but at least it would illuminate the absurdity of suggesting that Republicans want to defund the police.