Law & the Courts

Why Are We Still Talking about Defunding the Police?

Chicago police crime scene tape marks the scene of a shooting on the south side of Chicago, Ill., July 25, 2020. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Some bad ideas never die.

It’s been a year since cities across America were swept up in the frenzy of decriminalization, decarceration, and leniency that followed last summer’s widespread Black Lives Matter protests. It’s been at least six months since the deadly fruits of those reforms — what the Atlantic described as “a crime wave unlike anything we’ve seen this century” — began to make themselves known. New York suffered a 97 percent increase in shootings from 2019 to 2020, and 2021 is on track to be even worse. As of June, 2021 had seen 52 children under the age of 15 shot in Chicago, with ten fatalities — up from three child deaths in the same period of the preceding year. Police morale is as low as it has been in decades; law-enforcement departments from New York to Portland report a spike in early retirements and significant difficulties with recruiting new officers.

In the face of all of this, the “defund the police” movement and its attendant talking points are even less politically plausible now than they were last summer. There was never widespread support for the concept, and it has only continued to become less popular over time: As of March, fewer than one in five Americans supported the movement. Among black voters and Democrats, support was at 28 and 34 percent, respectively.

But ideology can be a powerful drug. In a blog post on Tuesday titled “Why Are We Afraid of Defunding the Police?,” New America’s Jordan Sandman and Joe Wilkes write:

Policing in America has never been a neutral institution. The police evolved from patrols whose chief responsibility was catching people attempting to escape slavery. And although the United States abolished slavery, we never abolished the legacy institution that enforced it. Since then, police budgets have soared — most cities now spend between 25–40 percent of their budgets on law enforcement. These tax dollars fund an institution that fuels mass incarceration, fails to prevent crime at the source, and demonstrates a callous disregard for the lives of people of color.

This is an account of American law enforcement that has been made repeatedly in service of defunding police departments across the country. Echoing many of their progressive peers, Sandman and Wilkes offer an alternative to “the police industrial complex”: “community ambassador programs that challenge the idea that maintaining law and order requires public safety officers to marshal lethal force.” Most Americans rightly reject this proposal. But the mix of historical ignorance and political naïveté that produced the movement continues to exercise a powerful influence over the way that the Left thinks about policing and crime.

The canard that American police departments resulted from chattel slavery, for example, has recently become tantamount to conventional wisdom in many progressive circles. Despite being debunked time and time again, the theory that today’s police force is linked to Southern slave patrols has been privileged with long essays in Time and The New Yorker, expounded on at length by the American Bar Association, and echoed by progressives as influential as House majority whip James Clyburn.

But our police force, like much of our political system, has its roots in England — not the Antebellum South. London established the first recognizably modern department of uniformed law-enforcement officers in 1829. The first modern police department in the United States appeared in Boston in 1838, and constables began to pop up in other cities throughout the Northeast soon after. Far from being slave patrols, the early police departments that emerged in the mid 19th century had far more community-oriented roles than they do today, acting as “civil servants of general resort” who filled roles such as running soup kitchens, inspecting boilers, and looking for lost children, according to the criminal-justice historian Eric Monkkonen. It was not until the end of the 19th century that American police began to “focus more narrowly on crime control; in so doing they diminished their varied range of social services,” Monkkonen writes. And as Hannah E. Meyers points out in the New York Post, “most of the 18,000 US police agencies were founded after abolition, and many were explicitly modeled on modern concepts of policing invented by the British.”

What about the price tag of law enforcement in contemporary America — the “25-40 percent” of city budgets that Sandman and Wilkes cite? The central premise of the defunder movement is that much of the taxpayer money spent on police would be better spent on social programs. If one cites the cost of policing in the specific context of municipal city budgets, as Sandman and Wilkes do, the price tag does seem disproportionately large. Those figures are accurate, but “city budgets . . . offer only a partial view of spending priorities,” as the Manhattan Institute’s Charles Fain Lehman writes. Police departments, unlike most other institutions in modern American life, are mainly funded at the local level, whereas most money for social programs comes from state and federal funding, leading to the disproportionate slice of city budgets. “More comprehensive figures furnished by the Bureau of Economic Analysis show that state and local governments together spent $143.7 billion on policing in 2019, about 4.9% of all spending,” Lehman continues. “The federal government, meanwhile, spends roughly $48.4 billion, roughly 1% of its outlays. The total $192 billion bill equals about 2.7% of all spending across all levels of government.” In other words, the “defund” activists’ ambitions to launch large-scale social programs with reallocated law-enforcement funds is not consistent with an honest account of government spending:

The sum of $192 billion may sound like a lot, but it is small potatoes compared with what is already spent on the government functions to which defunders would like to see that money rerouted. Total government spending on education is roughly $1.02 trillion, while income security payments — disability, retirement, welfare and social services, and unemployment —  totaled $1.6 trillion even before the coronavirus pandemic; health spending totaled $1.7 trillion. Across all levels of government, spending on police totals roughly 0.9% of GDP, compared with 33% of GDP spent across all budget functions.

Even if robbing the coffers of police departments across America were capable of yielding the money for effective new social programs, those programs could never replace traditional law-enforcement duties. Sandman and Wilkes’s conviction that “communities don’t need to rely on police to preserve the peace,” and that policing responsibilities could be shifted “to a new class of unarmed public safety officers,” flows from their faulty understanding of both history and data. This misinformation has real consequences: The senseless violence inflicted on urban communities over the past six months is the direct result of the now-popular myths surrounding policing’s origins, law-enforcement spending, and the variety of other lines of argument offered as rationales for slashing police budgets.

While unarmed civilian responders could be a worthwhile initiative in certain situations, it is a pipe dream to believe that social workers will ever be able to take the place of a well-armed (and well-trained) police officer in the tense, violence-prone situations that are a constant feature of human society. At root, the policies driving the crime wave derive from the “root cause” fallacy; i.e., the belief that violent crime could be reduced or even eliminated if we simply address the social conditions that produce it in the first place. Implicitly or explicitly, this operates on the Rousseauian conception of human nature that drives so much of progressive policy-making — that man is essentially plastic, “born free, but everywhere in chains.” But humanity’s fixed defectiveness is the fundamental premise at the heart of political conservatism. “It is the lot of all human institutions, even those of the most perfect kind, to have defects as well as excellencies — ill as well as good propensities,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers. “This results from the imperfection of the Institutor, Man.”

Most of this has been said before. But in spite of the mounting body count in America’s cities, the prospect of defunding America’s police force still seems to capture the imagination of a certain class of progressive wonk. Thankfully, the vast majority of Americans are far more sensible: As Sandman and Wilkes write with palpable exasperation, “It’s nearly impossible to imagine an America that doesn’t heavily rely on armed law enforcement.” Yes, and thank goodness for that.


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