Policing Works when It Is Done Right

Policing Works when It Is Done Right

The COVID pandemic and the police murder of George Floyd polarized views on policing. Rather than abolishing policing or maintaining its status quo, we need to make it better and more focused

A defocused police car sits behind crime scene tape with flashing lights at night

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Decades of research show that—when done strategically and fairly—policing reduces crime. That means we need evidence-based policing, not simply more or less policing. The best way to reduce violent crime requires focusing policing efforts on specific problems, places and people who commit repeat offenses.

Efforts to defund or abolish the police gained serious momentum in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. According to a recent national survey, police chiefs in roughly one in eight jurisdictions say they have seen attempts to defund their department. In Denver, for example, a city council member motivated by a desire to end police violence against people of color proposed an amendment to replace the local police department with an unarmed Department of Peacekeeping Services. In Austin, citing similar concerns, city leaders raced to slash their police budget. And in Seattle, facing pressure to halve police spending, city leaders reached an “uneasy truce” with protesters by reallocating 20 percent of the police budget to “community alternatives” and the “Equitable Communities Initiative,” among other things.

On the ground, policing has changed. In 2020 in Denver, the site of our recent study, police made 50 percent fewer pedestrian stops, 40 percent fewer vehicle stops, 60 percent fewer drug arrests and 25 percent fewer disorder arrests than they had been making on average during the four years prior.

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This occurred against the backdrop of a national, years-long trend of declining stops and arrests, a phenomenon that was further accelerated by both the COVID pandemic and the George Floyd protests.Enduring staffing shortages have further impaired operational capabilities, cutting into these practices while diminishing morale among officers.

The reality is that some baseline level of policing is necessary to ensure public safety. Some amount of proactive policing over and above that baseline likely ensures greater security. But too much policing can be harmful, undermining public confidence and safety.

Our own study in Denver showed that de-policing led to more crimes in the city’s streets, adding to the existing evidence on how the pandemic affected crime and, more generally, on when policing “works.”

Such evidence does not square nicely with desires to reduce or eliminate policing. Moreover, defunding the police is at odds with most Americans’ preferences, as well as with research that shows that reductions in proactive policing can disproportionately harm minority communities that are most negatively impacted by pullbacks in high-quality, fair policing.

At the same time, similar work in other cities such as Austin and Seattle found that “public safety was not clearly impacted” by de-policing. We believe this is evidence that context matters: not all police activities yield the crime control benefits we would like.

On the other hand, those who suggest we should simply “Back the Blue” and avoid seeking out safer alternatives to policing are also making an unsupported argument. Our Denver study and others have shown that crime does not always spike when police make fewer stops and arrests. Pullbacks in certain types of police behavior—for example, arrests for public disorder offenses—may be advantageous. Such changes may improve community relations because these arrests are often viewed as racially motivated by minority community members. Reducing the frequency of pretextual stops—that is, stops for minor traffic infractions that are merely used as a pretext to search for contraband in hopes of making an arrest—may also lead to better quality policing and more trust from the community.

We must weigh the crime control benefits of policing against the harm it can cause. Few studies attempt to carry out this thorny math. One team of researchers, however, recently estimated that each additional 10 officers employed by a jurisdiction prevent one homicide, with the trade-off that larger departments make more low-level, “quality of life” arrests, which disproportionately impact Black Americans.

Getting policing right means striking a balance between the excesses of police activity and a lack of safety that simultaneously and disproportionately burden disadvantaged groups in our country. While pulling back on police activity may reduce some harms (e.g., racial disparities and excessive force), going too far will offset many of those benefits by increasing violent victimization.

Policing matters when it deliberately focuses on specific local problems and ensures the protection of civil rights. Reform should focus on balancing these demands rather than on either heeding calls to abolish the police or recklessly supporting the police at every turn, losing sight of very real dangers behind both choices.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American or the authors’ institutions.

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