As the protests sparked by George Floyd’s death at the hands of officers in Minneapolis have continued, fervent calls to “defund the police” — or even abolish departments altogether — have quickly risen to the top of some reformers’ wish lists. This push seems aimed at addressing the dangers of over-policing: not just obvious abuses like Floyd’s death but also heavy-handed law enforcement responses in communities of color to minor offenses, such as loitering, drinking in public or panhandling.
But a great deal of scholarship has demonstrated that under-policing also leaves residents feeling perpetually underserved and unsafe. Residents of distressed urban neighborhoods have complained about ineffective policing for centuries, including officers’ rudeness, slow response times and lack of empathy for crime victims. Some residents of high-crime neighborhoods have long concluded that police are either incapable of keeping them safe or unwilling to do so — and a small subset of repeat offenders, like Jay and others we spoke to, have discarded the criminal justice system entirely as a viable mechanism for settling trivial disputes with enemies, opting instead to literally take matters into their own hands.
The result is that many black and brown communities now suffer from the worst of all worlds: over-aggressive police behavior in frequent encounters with residents, coupled with the inability of law enforcement to effectively protect public safety. But defunding police departments would address only one side of this problem. And the real, and significant, dangers of under-policing would just get worse in the neighborhoods that most need the police to improve — not disappear.
The nation has focused lately on the dangers of police abuses for African Americans and other people of color, especially in lower-income neighborhoods. But the violent crimes that police have the most difficulty solving — drug- and gang-related shootings — primarily cluster in the same communities. The threat of retaliatory violence reaches beyond gun-toting gang members’ rivals and jeopardizes the safety of all residents in these enclaves where people sometimes say “bullets have no names.”
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that the likelihood of being unintentionally shot is relatively low, with about only 458 people killed by accidental shootings in 2018, compared to 16,214 murders. But “random” shootings were a major concern to the young men we interviewed. And although New York has recently witnessed an extraordinary drop in violent crime and homicide, our guys lived in some of the neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx where elevated rates of violence have persisted. Jay wasn’t worried about being caught by police with a gun; he was more worried about being caught by enemies without one: “Anything could happen to me, and the cops, they’re not going to be there to save me.”
I’ve studied how high-crime neighborhoods experience encounters with the police for two decades, and I’ve found long-standing dissatisfaction over how residents are often mistreated by officers. But despite generations of negative experiences with law enforcement, the prevailing view among black citizens is that the police do have an important role in efforts to control crime. It isn’t just brutality or racism that erodes faith in law enforcement in these neighborhoods — it’s ineffectiveness, too. That may be part of why one survey in April found that only 56 percent of African Americans had a great deal or a fair amount of confidence that police would act in the public’s best interests, far lower than for other races: Too often, they’ve seen police fail to serve them in their own neighborhoods.
Arrest rates are an imperfect measure for evaluating police performance, but they reveal that fewer crimes are being solved. Across the United States, violent crime clearance rates have declined over the past five decades from as high as 90 percent in 1960 to around 60 percent today. A Washington Post investigation found that 68 percent of cities had a lower arrest rate for homicide in 2018 than they did a decade before — and the killers of black victims, who make up the majority of homicide cases, are the least likely to be arrested.
The harmful and cumulative effects of under-policing are not always readily apparent or well understood. Poor police performance gradually chips away at law enforcement’s legitimacy, especially when it occurs along with frequent harassment of young black men for minor offenses. The combined adverse effects of under- and over-policing produce episodic lawlessness. For instance, community members’ contempt for police increases when they frequently observe murder suspects triumphantly walking through the neighborhood — where they might strike again or be slain by others who think they have to take matters into their own hands. These difficult living conditions serve to stoke community violence, which benefits dangerous people and threatens everyone’s safety.
The unfortunate reality, however, is that arrests and successful prosecutions are unlikely without cooperating witnesses. Police executives say “anti-snitching” norms undermine their ability to deliver desperately needed justice. And my research and others’ has found persuasive evidence of a strong anti-snitching subculture, especially among people like Jay, who are deeply entrenched in networks of offenders. But authorities who complain about anti-snitching edicts overlook that there are reasons for law-abiding residents to be wary of stepping forward with key information: Simply put, after cooperating with law enforcement, witnesses often return to the same communities where they felt unsafe to begin with. “The streets talk,” as the saying goes, and being labeled a snitch can easily lead to an upstanding citizen’s untimely death in neighborhoods where the police can’t effectively protect them. So witnesses must weigh the costs when considering whether to cooperate with the police. And when the public sees law enforcement as lacking moral legitimacy, research shows, they’re less likely to support their crime-fighting missions — which means that when police don’t do their jobs well, it’s hard to improve.
People I’ve spoken with steadily emphasize that they want a different kind of policing than the aggressive approaches they typically see — one that values their humanity. They want officers to be solicitous and kind, and not to open otherwise mundane encounters with inflammatory profanity and aggression, such as unlawfully rifling through detainees’ belongings.
We heard the same thing from our sample of high-risk perpetrators and victims of gun violence, including Jay: Although the young men were extremely critical of officers — often in raw, emotional terms — they did allow themselves to imagine the benefits of improved police-community relations. For instance, these otherwise disaffected young men yearned for a day when New York police officers would safeguard the futures of children in low-income neighborhoods as they would their own.
There is reason to be optimistic that crime-reduction strategies can be both effective and just. For instance, there’s compelling evidence that focused deterrence strategies, like Boston’s Operation Ceasefire, can hold violent offenders accountable and provide tailored social services for those willing to leave their dangerous lifestyles behind. Operation Ceasefire began in the 1990s in response to intensifying public concern about skyrocketing youth violence. It devoted increased law enforcement attention and a wide range of social services to a small number of high-risk offenders, who were deemed responsible for a disproportionate amount of violent crime. Ceasefire was credited with an almost two-thirds monthly drop in Boston youth homicides during the 1990s. The program in Boston ended in the early 2000s, but the model has been implemented in several other cities since then, mostly under the direction of the National Network for Safe Communities.
Focused deterrence models enjoy an advantage over more divisive crime-reduction strategies (e.g., stop and frisk or “broken windows”) because, rather than casting a wide net of criminal suspicion over entire black neighborhoods, they rely on data to identify high-risk individuals and groups for intervention and customized social services, such as GED classes, workforce training and substance-abuse counseling.
Instead of yielding to mounting political pressure to defund police, city leaders could embrace innovative strategies that enlist the help of community partners with expertise and training that officers might lack (e.g., crisis intervention, mental health, homelessness, substance abuse), even though police now frequently respond to calls involving such matters.
The cries to “defund the police” may play out differently in different locations, too. One county might shift financial resources from the public safety budget to community stakeholders, who are well equipped to deal with enduring societal problems. In another region, a backlash against the policing profession might lead elected officials to carelessly raid the police budget, further undermining agencies already struggling to meet their public safety obligations. The first scenario considers how best to reallocate limited resources, prioritizing persistent crime and disorder problems; the second could expose the most vulnerable residents to increased lawlessness, leaving them even less protected than before.
One thing is abundantly clear, however: Police agencies serving low-crime, affluent neighborhoods — tranquil places arguably least in need of law enforcement protection — will continue to enjoy healthy operating budgets, inadvertently sanctioning age-old structural inequality. And it will be poorer people living in higher-crime neighborhoods who have to live with the consequences of whatever lawmakers decide to do.