Outlook

Why do we need the police?

Cops prevent violence. But they aren’t the only ones who can do it.
Vincent Cecil for The Washington Post
By

The calls to end policing as we know it contain a sort of trap. The best evidence we have makes clear that police are effective in reducing violence, and without designating some group to combat this problem, efforts to weaken them through budget cuts — “defund the police” — are likely to have unanticipated consequences and to destabilize communities. In many cities this is likely to lead to a rise in violence. And research shows that, when violence increases, Americans of all races become more punitive, supporting harsher policing and criminal justice policies. That’s how we got to this point.

Patrick Sharkey @patrick_sharkey is a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. His most recent book is "Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence."

Yet none of this means that the police, which have served as an institution of racialized control throughout our nation’s history, are the only group capable of reducing violence. Community leaders and residents have proved adept at overseeing their neighborhoods, caring for their populations and maintaining safe streets. Studies show that this work lowers crime, sometimes dramatically. What happens if we put those people in charge of containing violence, too?

Over the past 10 years, an expanding body of research has shown just how damaging violence is to community life, children’s academic trajectories and healthy child development. We have rigorous, causal evidence that every shooting in a neighborhood affects children’s sleep and their ability to focus and learn. When a neighborhood becomes violent, it begins to fall apart, as public spaces empty, businesses close, parks and playgrounds turn dangerous, and families try to move elsewhere. Violence is the fundamental challenge for cities: Nothing works if public space is unsafe.

Those who argue that the police have no role in maintaining safe streets are arguing against lots of strong evidence. One of the most robust, most uncomfortable findings in criminology is that putting more officers on the street leads to less violent crime. We know this from randomized experiments involving “hot spots policing” and natural experiments in which more officers were brought to the streets because of something other than crime — a shift in the terror alert level or the timing of a federal grant — and violent crime fell. After the unrest around the deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., police officers stepped back from their duty to protect and serve; arrests for all kinds of low-level offenses dropped, and violence rose. This shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that protests against violent policing lead to more violence; rather, it means that when police don’t do their jobs, violence often results.

Considered alongside the brutal response to protests over the past few weeks, this evidence forces us to hold two incongruent ideas: Police are effective at reducing violence, the most damaging feature of urban inequality. And yet one can argue that law enforcement is an authoritarian institution that historically has inflicted violence on black people and continues to do so today.

Police officers outside the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., on June 8, after more than a week of protests following the killing of George Floyd by the police in Minneapolis. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

To resolve these divergent ideas requires thinking about whether there are other groups or institutions that can uphold public safety without the damage done by law enforcement. Decades of criminological theory and growing evidence demonstrate that residents and local organizations can indeed “police” their own neighborhoods and control violence — in a way that builds stronger communities. This isn’t about citizen watch groups. When neighborhood organizations engage young people with well-run after-school activities and summer jobs programs, those young people are dramatically less likely to become involved in violent activities. When street outreach workers intervene, they can be extremely effective in interrupting conflicts before they escalate. When local organizations reclaim abandoned lots and turn them into green spaces, violence falls. When community nonprofits proliferate across a city, that city becomes safer.

The idea that residents and local organizations can play a central role in creating safe and strong communities is not new, and it is not particularly controversial. And yet we have never made the same commitment to these groups that we make to law enforcement — we ask residents of low-income neighborhoods to do the crucial work of building safe spaces on the cheap, often without any resources or compensation.

What if these alternative actors received the same resources the police do? The Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, for example, operates with an annual budget of close to $580 million and a workforce of 4,400 full-time employees. Each of its 57 police service areas (which D.C.'s seven police districts are subdivided into) receives, on average, about $10 million per year to protect public safety, with a workforce of roughly 77 full-time employees to serve a population of just over 12,000. If we ask community organizations and leaders to take over primary responsibility for creating a safe community, they should be given equivalent resources. And we have every reason to believe that a coalition of organizations and leaders with the capacity to hire and train more than 70 professionals — conflict mediators, violence interrupters, youth outreach teams, case workers, mental health counselors, crisis response teams, maintenance and beautification crews, data analysts, liaisons to public agencies — can begin to transform a neighborhood. These would be well-paid, full-time jobs.

This notion, obviously, requires rigorous testing. We could begin with a demonstration project that is both more cautious and more radical than the call to defund the police, tailored for a bold mayor and a bold philanthropist. It consists of a half-dozen steps: Select a set of neighborhoods or precincts where residents are actively seeking an alternative to law enforcement. Bring local organizations, leaders and residents together around a single entity, sometimes called a “community quarterback,” to begin planning for a new model of public safety and well-being. Find an outside source of funding, from a philanthropist or a foundation, to make sure the coalition has the same resources the police department would receive to patrol that precinct. Do not fire any cops or touch the police budget, but reassign officers to different roles or different precincts, outside the neighborhoods selected for the project. Last, make a long-term commitment to the new coalition and give it a chance, with methodical planning and sustained resources over at least five to 10 years.

New York City police arrest protesters in Brooklyn after an 8 p.m. curfew on June 5. (Holly Pickett/For The Washington Post)

How would this new coalition take over the task of public safety? The answers will come from those who have been doing this work for years outside the boundaries of law enforcement and from the community itself. In neighborhoods with extreme gun violence, police officers should continue to play a role in responding to some violent crimes, working with the community to solve problems in locations where shootings are common, and focusing their attention on the tiny fraction of residents who account for a disproportionate share of serious violence. But it is not hard to envision a place where police officers are confined to these roles — and otherwise serve as backup to outreach workers, counselors, mediators, social service providers, unarmed traffic safety agents and EMTs, becoming involved only if the first responder requests assistance or an arrest.

It may seem naive to think that most crimes can be handled outside of law enforcement or the criminal justice system. But the reality is that this is already happening. Data from the National Crime Victimization Survey reveals that roughly half of sexual assaults, robberies and aggravated assaults are not reported to the police. Those who have survived violence say prosecution is not always the right response: When given multiple options, a large majority of survivors do not want the people who harmed them to go to prison, according to a 2016 study by the Alliance for Safety and Justice. Most want those who did them harm to understand the pain they caused, to acknowledge their accountability in person, and to make a commitment to transform their behavior.

Research on street outreach programs suggests that most conflicts and altercations can be defused by violence interrupters and professionals trained in mediation. Physical and mental health crises can be addressed by paramedics and medical professionals, and public-order violations can be handled by homeless-assistance providers, counselors and other social service workers.

There are neighborhoods all over the country where residents gave up on the police a long time ago, where local organizations and informal groups have developed their own methods to mediate and de-escalate conflict, to treat neighbors experiencing health problems, to support those suffering from poverty or addiction, to provide appropriate responses for people with mental illness, to seek healing and reckoning in the aftermath of victimization. Local groups, including organizations like Reclaim the Block and the Black Visions Collective in Minneapolis, were making the case for new institutions of public safety well before George Floyd was killed. We have models available, but we’ve made commitments only to the police and the prison system.

I know what it looks like when public spaces are overseen by a group of advocates, rather than a group of warriors. In March 2017, I traveled to Perth, in Western Australia, to walk alongside outreach workers from the Nyoongar Patrol. The organization was set up with government funding to be a buffer between the police and the Aboriginal community. The highly trained, professional staff walk the streets of Perth each night looking out for community members who need assistance, defusing conflict and greeting neighbors with smiles and hugs. I watched them break up a fight between two young people before the police were called. At the end of the night, I saw them make calls to find a safe place to sleep for a woman who was worried that she would be at risk if she went home.

I observed from the periphery, and I was still exhausted by the end of the shift. It is hard, stressful work to spend time in public spaces, making sure everyone feels safe. But it works better if those taking on this task are motivated by genuine concern for their neighbors.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the 57 police service areas in the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington as precincts.

We noticed you’re blocking ads!

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker. Or purchase a subscription for unlimited access to real news you can count on.
Unblock ads
Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us