Defund the Police Meets the Crime Wave
Ideological nihilism loses its luster when the consequences are right before your eyes.
My wife and I are scrambling to find a daycare for our 16-month-old son. We’ve had a “nanny share” up until now, which means we and another couple employ a nanny for both couples’ kids and split the cost. Our nanny is amazing, and she lives just a few blocks away from us. The setup could not be more ideal. But a few weeks ago, someone walked up her street spraying bullets into random houses. One of the bullets found its way into her living room, as she and her family ducked for cover. At that moment, she and her husband decided they were moving their family out of Oakland.
The shooting didn’t even make the local news. Apparently, in the Bay Area right now, you can walk up a residential street firing your gun into houses, and you still won’t be able to compete for attention with all of the other sensational crimes. Shoplifters casually walk into Walgreens stores in San Francisco filling garbage bags full of merchandise. They’ve spat on, bitten, assaulted, and thrown bottles of urine at employees. The flashmob-style “smash and grab” robberies that originated here have spread across the country. Asian seniors are brazenly assaulted in the street; one octogenarian was body slammed to death. And now freeway shootings is a thing. A few weeks ago, a 29 year-old mom on her way from Oakland to San Francisco for a job interview with her fiancé and two kids was randomly shot and killed in her SUV at the Bay Bridge toll plaza at nine in the morning. In an interview, the victim’s mother recalled being heartbroken after hearing the story of Jasper Wu, a two year-old who was sleeping in his car seat heading down the freeway when he was shot and killed by a stray bullet fired from another car driving in the opposite direction. It was not yet two weeks later when she lost her own daughter the same way.
I recently finished San Fransicko, by Michael Shellenberger. I highly recommend it. The subtitle to the book is provocative: “Why Progressives Ruin Cities.” But as Shellenberger explains in the book, he does not mean to imply that progressives always ruin the cities they govern, or that conservatives never do. He’s just interested in the specific phenomenon of when progressives do ruin cities, and explaining why that happens.
And progressives do ruin cities, or at least put in place policies that cause profound harm to the people living in them. An obvious case-in-point is the call to defund the police. It’s a slogan that sounds great on a bumper sticker, but what are its consequences in practice?
Here’s Cat Brooks, perhaps Oakland’s most prominent police abolitionist, in The Guardian:
“The goal is to interrupt and respond to state violence,” said Brooks, a longtime Bay Area social justice organizer and outspoken advocate for families who have lost loved ones to police violence. “We’re good at responding but the only way you get to interruption is to reduce the number of interactions with police.”
Undoubtedly, that’s true: if you have fewer interactions between police and civilians, you’ll likely have fewer acts of violence perpetrated on civilians by police. The obvious problem with this “solution,” though, is that you’ll also have more crime.
This isn’t just deduction; it’s been measured. Harvard’s Roland Fryer looked at what happens in cities after a high-profile police killing of a civilian that results in an investigation of the department. The answer is that police do exactly what Cat Brooks wants: they stop interacting with civilians. That could be because officers become excessively vigilant about not becoming the next suspect in a police shooting, or it could be that they’re cynically demonstrating to the public how much they’re needed, or both. It doesn’t really matter for present purposes; the point is that we can see what happens when cops stop interacting with the public.
To take one example, in Chicago after the murder of Laquan McDonald, police-civilian interactions dropped by 80 percent in the three weeks following the release of the video showing the killing. For a full two years after the murder, the homicide rate in Chicago increased. Fryer estimates that about 180 murders occurred in Chicago because of the reduced number of police-civilian interactions. Nationally, Fryer counts 893 murders and almost 13,500 felonies that occurred because of reduced police-civilian interactions in five American cities.
Defund advocates like to claim that police don’t actually prevent crimes, they only bust the perpetrators after the fact, but that’s demonstrably untrue. Police presence deters crime. Arresting career criminals takes them out of circulation, at least temporarily. And perhaps the most important impact of effective policing on crime is the most subtle one: it upholds a community’s belief in the integrity of government-administered justice.
When defund advocates say that police “only” arrest criminals after they’ve committed crimes, they’re ignoring, perhaps willfully, everything that’s upheld as a result of that arrest. In Ghettoside (another book I’d highly recommend), journalist Jill Leovy shows what happens when police clearance rates are abysmally low, and people can literally get away with murder. Under those conditions, the friends and relatives of murder victims assume — rationally — that the criminal justice system will not in fact provide them with any justice at all. So their choice is either to live with their loved ones’ murderers enjoying impunity for their crimes, or to take justice into their own hands. When they commit to the second option, an escalating cycle of violence begins, which could have been avoided by police doing their jobs.
Advocates of defunding the police dismiss these arguments not because they can refute them empirically but because those arguments cut against their ideology, and the call to defund the police is really an ideological declaration, not an actual policy proposal. It’s true that defund advocates claim that their aim is to reduce police violence while also reducing crime by channeling those dollars toward social programs that ameliorate the conditions that create criminality. But that’s almost always an afterthought. If it wasn’t, then they wouldn’t be so committed to seeing the two as a zero sum game, as if you can’t re-invest in social programs while not cutting police, by, for instance, raising taxes. The whole “we’ll re-invest the money into social services” is a defensive response to critics, not an affirmative policy goal. The point is not to build up, it’s to tear down.
In San Fransicko, Shellenberger traces what happened when that same approach was brought to another perceived injustice: insane asylums. In the name of liberating the mentally ill from their imprisonment in mental hospitals (which were, most certainly, horrific places), progressives of an earlier era fixated on tearing down these evil institutions, but not in building up something to replace them with (contrary to popular belief, in California this effort was underway well before Ronald Reagan was Governor, and it was a progressive initiative). We live in the aftermath of their triumph, and it looks like San Francisco’s Tenderloin District or L.A.’s Skid Row. Except in a few cases, today there is no more involuntary treatment for serious mental diseases or drug addiction. But nor is there a humane alternative. There is only jail or the streets. There is only, that is, imprisonment or death.
Shellenberger quotes one observer noting that the same thing is happening today with criminal justice. Like then, progressives today are passionate about dismantling the status quo, but have little interest in creating a better system to erect in its place — a posture Shellenberger calls “left libertarianism.” There’s just this free-floating faith that those systems will somehow organically and spontaneously emerge. But they won’t. There are plenty of countries with police that are so corrupt or so outgunned that there’s effectively no police at all — places like El Salvador and Somalia. Closer to home, there was CHAZ/CHOP. But that’s not what defund advocates envision when they talk about a world without police.
The push to defund the police has always been more popular in higher income areas of progressive cities like Oakland, where crime and violence are more of an abstraction; the two Oakland city council members who voted against reducing the Mayor’s proposed budget increase for the police last summer represented the poorest, most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. But now, in Oakland and San Francisco, the crime wave is hitting the affluent neighborhoods, too, as well as the spaces that everyone, rich and poor alike, shares — like the freeways and the Bay Bridge toll plaza. As the surge in street violence has become less theoretical to white, middle class residents of the city, Oakland’s Mayor has recouped the political capital to push to restore the funds that were cut. Suddenly, the nihilistic ideology of the progressive activist class has lost the cachet it was imbued with during last year’s summer of BLM. Reality has a way of doing that.