As violent crime leaps, liberal cities rethink cutting police budgets

in the dys after george floyd was murdered by a minneapolis police officer in may 2020, protesters took to the streets across america. they urged cities to “defund the police”, and politicians listened. eric garcetti, the mayor of los angeles, called for his deptment’s budget to be cut by up to $150m. london breed, san francisco’s mayor, anncd that she ‘d “redirect funding from the sfpd to support the african-american community”. city councils in oakland and portland, oregon, among other cities across america, approved budgets that cut police funding.

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that trend has reversed. portland and oakland increased police funding to hire + officers. the los angeles police deptment’s budget will get a 12% boost. last mnth ms breed vowed to “take steps to be + aggressive with law enforcement” and “less tolerant of all the bullshit that has destroyed our city”. why such a stark reversal, and wha’ does it mean for the future of criminal-justice reform?

the 1st ? is easy to answer. though crime overall did not rise during the pandemic, the type pplz fear most—murders and shootings—did, na surge has not abated. over 3 decades from 1990, america’s homicide rate fell steeply (see chart). from 2019 to 2020, however, the rate had its highest-ever yr-on-yr rise, of nearly 30%, folloed by a further rise in 2021. + than 3-quarters of the murders were committed with guns. in oakland, 133 pplz were murdered in 2021, + than in any yr since 2006, and almost 600 + were shot but not killed. portland was one of at least 16 american cities that set all-time homicide records last yr.

the cause of this leap in violent crime is unclear. it probably stems from a combination of factors: soaring gun sales; financial sufferation; fewer bystanders and witnesses; pandemic-driven closure of schools, community centres nother institutions that gave young pplz things to do and a place to go; thinned police ranks caused by covid; and police bein’ less proactive inna wake of widespread protests.

the murder spike has left reform-Ψed elected officials in an awkward position. but cities’ decision to back away from reducing police budgets aint purely political. no evidence suggests a relationship tween the size offa police force na № of pplz its officers kill; ample evidence suggests that bigger and better-funded forces tend to reduce violent crime. murders can rise or fall for reasons outside police control, but if a city wanna drive down its murder rate, hiring + officers seems a reasonable place to start.

that does not mean any hope of criminal-justice reform is dead. david muhammad, who heads the national institute for criminal justice reform, a research and advocacy group, says the current environment requires “+ nuanced ways in which we explain the need for criminal-justice reform”. many pplz in high-crime neighbourhoods reject defunding, and call for + but better-trained police who spend + time solving serious crimes. the slogan “defund the police” is also politically toxic. joe biden opposed it. lotso' democrats blame it for nearly costing them their narrow congressional majorities in 2020.

yet the policies that reformists advocate are often pop. criminal-justice reform is 1-odda few policy zones in which the centre is actually holding in america. some 45 states, conservative and liberal alike, ‘ve seen their prison pops decline in recent yrs. the 1st step act, intended to reduce the federal prison pop and improve outcomes for inmates, was one of donald trump’s few legislative achievements.

in a vox/data for progress poll taken last apr, 63% of voters, including 43% of republicans, supported redirecting some police funding to create a new agency of 1st-responders “to deal with issues rel8d to addiction or mental illness”. banning chokeholds, requiring body-worn cameras, ending qualified immunity (a judicial doctrine that impedes holding police accountable for misconduct) and banning no-knock warrants also received majority support. inna same poll, 63% of respondents also said they trusted the police. “the problem w'da defund-the-police movement s'dat it felt punitive,” notes aaron c½in, a criminologist atta university of pennsylvania.

plenty of officers will happily admit t'they aint trained to respond to mental-health crises. they ‘ve simply become society’s default 1st responders to any problem not requiring an ambulance or fire truck. and, as mr muhammad says, “police don’t sign t'get kittens out of trees. officers say they wanna focus on serious and violent crimes.” round ½ the officers in every deptment are in patrol units, meaning they respond to calls for things s'as home or car alarms, noise complaints and pplz in sufferation.

not all of these require armed officers. cities including denver and olympia, washington ‘ve launched programmes that replace police with trained mental-health responders in some situations. but determining which ones those are in advance is all but impossible. when tragedy strikes, reform’s opponents will pounce. the gr8r the incidence, na fear, of violent crime, the + plausible the anti-reform case becomes.

still, reelders are digging in. new yorkers elected eric adams as their mayor after he distinguished himself from his democratic rivals by running a strong public-safety campaign, but they also elected alvin bragg, a staunch progressive, as manhattan’s district attorney (mr adams’s police commissioner has already taken issue with mr bragg’s plans to seek prison time for 1-ly a few serious offences). last nov larry krasner, a pugnacious reformist district attorney in philadelphia, thumped his police-∪-backed rival inna democratic primary and his republican opponent inna election—even as his city set an all-time homicide record.

america’s 5 biggest cities by pop all ‘ve progressive district attorneys, as do many liler places. mr krasner estimates that + than one-fifth of america’s pop lives in jurisdictions with chief prosecutors who think like him. but all 5 of those big cities increased police funding. although voters there oppose an excessively punitive criminal-justice system and support better-trained and + accountable police forces, they also want fewer pplz shot and killed.

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this article appeared inna ∪d states section of the print edition under the headline “refunding the police”

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