Slogans aside, however, the topic of police funding deserves a hard look. Are we spending too much? Are taxpayers getting what we pay for? Or has spending on police become counterproductive — somehow producing the very excesses that have driven hundreds of thousands into the streets to protest?
Without a doubt, the United States spends too much on police bureaucracy. A reader in England, retired after a career in policing, called my attention to this stark statistic: There are nearly 18,000 police departments in the United States, compared with fewer than 50 in Britain. That doesn’t include all the gun-toting private security agencies that flourish in the United States as nowhere else.
This mind-boggling number enhances the power of many a small-town government, and it gratifies some 18,000 men and women who get to be called “chief” and wear braid on their uniforms. But the excess of bureaucracies is a roadblock to reform and a dodge against accountability. We don’t need so many — as the city of Camden, N.J., discovered when it shut down its lousy police department and turned responsibility over to a reimagined countywide force. Life in Camden noticeably improved.
America may have too many cops, as well. Consider this: Over the past generation, the U.S. crime rate has fallen by half. Meanwhile, a 2016 Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis found that the ratio of police officers to citizens has remained the same.
Simple math says that the same number of officers chasing half as much crime will mean twice as much force to answer the average infraction. And where does that get us? Weirdly, according to FBI data through 2017, doubling the number of cops per crime has produced roughly zero improvement in the number of crimes solved. Instead, we end up with four Minneapolis cops responding to a nonviolent dispute over a pack of cigarettes — with disastrous results. Fired officer Derek Chauvin would not have knelt for nearly nine minutes on George Floyd’s neck if he hadn’t had two fellow officers holding Floyd down and yet another to intimidate horrified bystanders.
The extraordinary drop in crime is one of the true good-news stories of recent U.S. history. Yet, according to the Pew Research Center, most people have no idea that it happened. Six in 10 American adults believe that crime is going up. This gap between reality and perception is too bizarre to be accidental. Fear of crime persists because it’s a vote-getter for politicians, an attention-grabber for the media, and a budget-booster for police departments and police unions. This unholy convergence of interests ultimately distorts the public’s understanding.
We’ve witnessed in recent days what happens when thousands of police departments engage in fear-based budgeting. We get faceless, militarized, coercive policing. And inevitably, when police officers are dressed and armed like soldiers, some decide to do battle. Unquestionably, the application of such force was often provocative rather than calming. Again and again, television cameras and smartphones captured images of police causing more mayhem than they prevented.
America’s streets are not war zones, and tumult is not combat. The proper role of police is to promote the peace — for protesters and presidents alike. Clearly, we are buying too much ammo and armor for the constabulary. No free and open society should require so much Kevlar, so many riot shields, such endless supplies of gas canisters and rubber bullets.
Writer Anton Chekhov counseled that a gun mentioned early in a story must be fired before the end. In American policing, life imitates art. All this excess — too many police departments, too many officers, exaggerated fear, outsized response — must have an effect sooner or later.
We also ask too much of police. They should not be expected to fill the gaping holes in America’s mental-health-care system. They should not be our primary response to problems of dysfunctional families and disordered communities. They should not be delivering discipline at school buildings or mediating disputes among neighbors. They should not be our solution to homelessness. Shrinking the outsized role of police in U.S. society will require the rest of us to expand our own zones of responsibility and accountability.
“Defund the police” is an extreme statement; its purpose is to grab attention. But if the hyperbole galvanizes a movement to streamline the police, de-escalate police, demilitarize police, re-humanize police and make police more responsive to the communities they serve, people will be happier on both sides of the blue line.
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