When it comes to policing and public safety, governments tend to “buy in bulk.” So even when resources are tight, police departments get tons of money from municipal coffers. Those municipalities must often cut other services to fund the police, even when those other services offer front-end crime prevention that would cost considerably less than we spend on policing. On top of that, local police forces receive tons of federal money and equipment, and are incentivized into over-policing to keep those coffers flowing.
And all of this occurs despite the lack of any consistent relationship between public spending on law enforcement and overall crime rates. The conventional wisdom is that if we spend more on police and policing, there will be less crime. It doesn’t appear to be that simple. Writing for the Washington Post, Philip Bump points out that an examination of spending relative to crime since 1960 concludes “that there is no correlation between the two.” Bump says this is especially true of violent crime, and is even true when you account for the delayed effects of increased or decreased spending.
There’s also no correlation between overall crime rates and public perceptions of crime rates, but that’s beyond the scope of this short post. This lack of correlation should tell us that we are making decisions about public spending, law enforcement and criminalization, itself, using obsolete tools.
Broadly speaking, the reason we don’t know how to properly spend money on public safety is that we don’t actually know what genuine public safety is. Furthermore, we don’t know what causes or prevents crime because the parameters of “crime” are themselves so artificial. “Crime,” write Paul and Patricia Brantingham, “must be thought of as a broad range of actual behaviors, which, while sometimes appearing similar, may be the results of many different incentives or etiological processes.” As for cause, they continue, crime is like backaches, “never . . . attributable to any single cause . . . the result of a variety of causes. No single factor or etiology is likely to explain all similar criminal events.”
In 2011 the DOJ argued that the complete absence of police (due to strikes) is consistently correlated with a sharp increase in crime. But does this assume a unitary kind of “policing?” Does it preclude different conceptions and structures of public safety? The Defund movement points out that police don’t often intervene in ongoing violent crimes, but if such intervention is warranted, “a service that provides expert specialized rapid response does not need to be connected to an institution of policing that fails in every other respect.” Rather, a hyperspecialized conflict intervention, criminal apprehension, or other service is just that — a service, that specialists rather than generalists (masses of cops with weapons, often incompetent, often looking for trouble themselves) could provide for a fraction of the resources we spend now.
Taylor Miller Thomas and Beatrice Jin at Politico explain further: “Studies have shown that an increase in sworn police officers reduces instances of crime. However, increases in other factors — such as social welfare, access to health care, employment and other social services — have also been shown to decrease crime rates. It’s unclear the extent to which increases in police spending are responsible for falling rates of violent crime.”
In other words: cut armed policing, fund social services and do good social policymaking in general. Leave actual instances of violent crime up to well-trained and strictly regulated security specialists.
That’s the kind of thinking that needs to replace the “buying in bulk” model of police spending. More is not better. While the thought was, perhaps, that lots of patrol officers would mean lots of successful interventions stopping or solving crimes, while also having a deterrent effect on future crimes. Instead, we’ve created a large-scale public legitimacy crisis, drained local budgets, and haven’t influenced crime rates. Solving the causes of crime at the earliest possible time, designing genuine crime prevention programs tied to security and well-being for everyone, might mean not only defunding most policing per se, but also most of the need for it. That would be true fiscal responsibility.