While politicians have often painted the rise in police officers as improving public safety, the truth is that the escalation of mass policing — police personnel, resources and police contact — has produced persistent harassment, arrest and soaring rates of police violence in black communities, as well as other communities of color.
As Democratic presidential candidates today push for criminal justice reform, they must recognize their party contributed significantly to this problem in a rush to attract political support through law-and-order platforms. Truly fixing the problem, and atoning for the sins of the past, requires not just plans for reducing mass incarceration, but also for reducing the massive amount of police resources that made it possible — something no candidate has discussed.
The large-scale growth in spending for police personnel and resources can be traced back to liberals in the 1940s and especially the 1960s after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on crime. Johnson’s push led to passage of the Law Enforcement Assistance Act (LEAA), which began the dramatic expansion of the criminal justice system that would continue under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Johnson’s efforts built upon a relatively new idea of police as the doorkeepers of public safety that dated to reform attempts in the 1920s and 1930s. For much of history, police were seen as illegitimate and riddled with corruption. Reformers in the 1920s and 1930s attempted to rid departments of organizational corruption and to decouple their close ties with political elites. They emphasized that crime control and arrest were the primary responsibilities of police departments. This shift brought about organizational changes in which police departments began to mirror a more centralized, bureaucratic, paramilitary organizational structure.
The measurements for success also changed. Departments increasingly focused on efficiency, which was measured by rapid response to emergency calls, and the achievement of higher arrest rates, which had a devastating impact on marginalized communities of color, beginning with black communities. Scholars have long shown that poverty and disadvantage, shaped by centuries of structural racism, are closely related to levels of violence and harm in neighborhoods across the United States
Johnson’s War on Crime and LEAA expanded this work by making the police stewards of public safety. As the president told Congress in 1966, “The front-line soldier in the war on crime is the local law enforcement officer.” The LEAA put money where Johnson’s mouth was, creating the first federal funding stream for local policing efforts. Johnson’s support at the federal level and valorization of local police, at the height of the professionalization era of policing, helped create a paradigm shift toward a view of local law enforcement as the only legitimate gatekeepers to public safety.
But this entire conception of the problems plaguing black and other communities of color rested upon fundamentally racist ideas, and these policy solutions tore at the social fabric of black communities by facilitating an increase in policing and punishment.
Things only got worse when President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs. Nixon’s administration continued to channel hundreds of millions of dollars to local law enforcement in the name of curbing drug use and distribution. These funds ended up disproportionately targeting black, and other racially marginalized and poor communities. White suburban drug users were often treated as victims, or given a slap on the wrist, while police focused on purported drug “pushers,” usually black and Latinx, arresting many.
By the 1980s, the war on drugs had been heightened, in part, because of the anti-black hysteria around the use of crack cocaine, something fueled by both Democrats and Republicans. But this drove even more funds to local police who were pressured to expand arrests to demonstrate success and justify these new budgets.
The 1994 Clinton crime bill was the largest single bill to expand the criminal justice system since the LEAA. Concerned about how Democrats, especially 1988 presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, had been painted as soft on crime, Bill Clinton advocated a tough-on-crime platform, touting the number of additional police officers that this legislation put on the streets, especially the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program. COPS was a seemingly liberal attempt to better police-community relations and reduce crime. But it has simply flooded black communities with police officers, fueling mass incarceration rather than reducing crime. Further,police violence has only increased, deepening tensions and fears.
The policies advocated by Clinton, Johnson and other Democrats set the stage for a federal commitment to fund local police departments. But this has happened often at the expense of social services like schools and community programs.
In the end, all of this additional funding has done little to create a safer America. In fact, by shifting funds from social services to policing, government at all levels has arguably made communities less safe by failing to develop institutions that address the underlying causes of violence and harm, often shaped by legacies of racial and class inequality.
Yet the idea that more police officers will make communities safer remains. The durability of this concept stems from many factors. Police departments and police unions have enormous political power. At the local level, they often organize and campaign for additional city budget funds. Moreover, the influence often extends to election cycles, where political candidates advocate for “tough-on-crime” stances and commit to pushing for increased funds for policing because they see tough-on-crime policies as politically necessary.
But actually building safer communities arguably requires diverting funds from policing to social spending to deal with the underlying issues that lead to a lack of safety in cities across the United States — something advocacy groups like Liberate MKE in Milwaukee have recognized. The group recently conducted a survey that revealed residents’ desire for less spending on police and more on social programs. The pressure from this campaign led to a refusal to add 60 officers to the Milwaukee Police Department and an increase in funding for more youth work programs, health initiatives and emergency housing
Some organizations, such as Durham Beyond Policing in North Carolina, are even challenging the tie between police and public safety and seeking alternatives to policing altogether.
These organizations make a clear point: The most effective way to increase safety in communities throughout the country is by addressing centuries of racial-class inequality, reducing poverty and creating opportunities for people to thrive. To that end, quality schools, housing and hospitals, living-wage work, community-based violence interruption, domestic-violence support programs and drug treatment are all programs that help to foster safety and would help to transform marginalized communities, as well as the nation.
It’s time for Democrats to pick up the mantle of these groups, not only discussing how they’re going to reduce mass incarceration, but also the massive investments in policing that have made it possible. A shift at the national level can help to create a paradigm change away from explicit — or subtle — law-and-order policies being politically advantageous. Shifting away from an obsession of pouring money into policing and directing it toward developing the health and wellness of communities through community resources and programs will do more for public safety than billion-dollar police budgets.