29 June 2024

Less Police, Less Crime?

There appears to be a correlation between Police department staffing and crime falling.

Of course correlation does not prove causation, the correlation points to something going on.

In late May, Politico ran an article with the trollish headline “White House to the left: We told you so on crime.” The piece was built on interviews with two anonymous advisers to President Joe Biden, who asserted that falling violent crime rates and the electoral defeat of a “progressive” prosecutor in Oregon had validated the administration’s “toughness” and vocal support for increased law enforcement funding. Its framing depicted the politics of law and order as a zero-sum game in which leftists—especially those who called to “defund” law enforcement in 2020 after numerous high-profile instances of police brutality—have been routed.

But while it’s true that voters generally chose not to support defunding efforts amid rising COVID-era crime rates, the administration’s more-cops triumphalism might not tell the entire story either. In a New Republic piece published the day after the White House’s Politico victory lap, for instance, Michelle Phelps—a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota who studies policing—noted that thanks to retirements and resignations, there are actually fewer police officers working in the Minneapolis Police Department now than there were before the protests triggered by the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by an MPD officer. And according to numbers compiled by the Police Executive Research Forum, a respected independent group, that’s true of major cities across the country as a whole. “In large agencies, sworn staffing slightly increased during 2023,” PERF writes, “but it is still more than 5 percent below where it was in January 2020.” (Caveat: PERF’s data relies on departmental self-reporting.)

In other words, while voters may not have wanted it to be the case, and it didn’t happen in the way that activists would have chosen either, many U.S. police departments have gotten smaller—and the violent crime rate is still plummeting. So what is going on? Slate spoke to Phelps, author of the new book The Minneapolis Reckoning: Race, Violence and the Politics of Policing in America, about the fallout from Floyd’s death in Minnesota and how it might relate to the politics of police and crime nationally. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 
So, why is crime falling even has police department staffing has fallen?

Ms. Phelps gives a number of potential reasons,

  • That a reduction in police leads to a reduction in over-policing, things like stop and frisk, pulling people over for burnt out tail-lights, etc., and so police are actually more focused on crime.
  • That police reform efforts have led to non-police intervention efforts.

What Ms. Phelps does not consider, that the police who have left the force have been bad cops.

The ones who are most likely to leave or take early retirement because of increased scrutiny or Covid vaccine mandates, are more likely to be the violent, brutal and incompetent cops. 

This is why I have always felt that using training to improve policing is a recipe for failure:  The bad cops are largely impervious to training.  The solution is to make sure that the bad cops are no longer cops.


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