Murders in the United States rose by 30 percent in 2020, the largest one-year increase on record. There are likely many factors that contributed to the spike, but there’s one thing that clearly did not help: the blanket anti-police mantra adopted by many urban and national leaders after the killing of George Floyd.
That mantra, typified by high-profile calls to “defund the police,” is in response to real problems in law enforcement, but it has created a crisis in police staffing. Police are retiring or quitting in droves, often because they do not want to take the daily abuse unleashed by the mobs unfairly blaming average cops for the racial problems that the Floyd case revealed. The surge in departures is particularly acute in cities where police were not supported by mayors or city councils. Seattle, for example, saw resignations nearly quadruple and retirements double from 2019 to 2020, leaving the force short by more than 100 officers. The remaining personnel were stretched thin, causing response times to calls for help to soar.
Police recruitment is also significantly down, as the same factors that lead cops to quit discourage those who might want to become cops from trying to join the force. This trend is especially pronounced in larger police departments that serve our nation’s biggest cities, which are most likely to be under the political microscope. A June survey from the Police Executive Research Forum found that recruitment had declined by 29 percent among departments with between 250 and 499 officers and by 36 percent among those with 500 or more officers. The result is that most departments have staffing shortfalls, although not as acute as Seattle’s, and have fewer cops available to protect citizens who need their help more than ever.
There is also evidence that police are pulling back in performing some of their duties. Confronting someone for a traffic violation or what appears to be a misdemeanor could result in escalation, which it seems many cops are not willing to risk given the politicization of their jobs. People who might have been arrested for low-level offenses are thus on the streets and able to commit more serious crimes, much as the “broken windows” theory of criminal justice predicted nearly 40 years ago. The lack of regular police presence may also embolden criminals to act. The result is that many officers have become more of what they were in the crime-ridden 1970s, respondents to acts of violence, than the proactive crime preventers many became after the policing revolution of the 1990s and 2000s.
This rise in violence hurts poor people of color most of all. There were roughly 17,700 murders in the United States last year. More than 9,900 of the victims were Black, and 2,800 were Hispanic. Only about 7,000 — or about 40 percent — were White, even though the 2020 Census reports that White people, including those who are multiracial and partly White, comprise 71 percent of the total population. The Marshall Project also reports that cities saw the highest spikes in murders in Black and Latino neighborhoods. So attacking the police in the name of racial justice, it seems, ends up harming the same people that police reform efforts intend to help.
None of this means that police reform should be halted. It’s clear there are bad actors on every police force, and those people need to be disciplined or rooted out. That will mean changing the rules surrounding dismissal of officers who commit unacceptable acts. A police oversight board, for example, has reinstated the Atlanta officer who fatally shot Rayshard Brooks in the back of a Wendy’s parking lot, even though Brooks, who was inebriated and fleeing the scene, was armed only with a taser. Police unions that want the support and respect of community leaders need to give leaders more leeway in such cases to discipline or remove offending officers.
At the same time, we must address the increase in murders and crime before it’s too late. Many Americans have grown up expecting historically low crime rates in big cities. They don’t realize that New York, for example, was a national symbol of disorder and violence before the police reforms initiated by then-mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Police Chief William J. Bratton. Murders remain well below the levels experienced back then, but that’s not a given. A failure to stem violence in the mid-1960s led to the national crime wave that cost tens of thousands of Americans their lives and made many of the United States’ greatest cities centers of crime.
The past 30 years have taught us that high crime is a choice, not an inevitability. National and local leaders need to remember that and keep the hard-won gains of the past three decades as they work to implement needed policing reforms.