March 4, 2022
Overall crime is down in the US, however murders and violent crimes have ticked up over the past two years, despite being substanitally below the historic highs of the 1980s.
This is a real problem though—and the truth is that no one is really sure yet why it’s happening. Unsurprisingly, though, this lack of clarity hasn’t stopped many elected officials from calling for more money to be poured into a system of policing and law enforcement that is already the highest funded in the world.
Everyone wants to reduce crime and promote public safety. But is ramping up even more spending on police the best way to do that?? Let’s take a look at the data.
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For decades in America we’ve been told by politicians and other leaders that we have to keep spending money on the police if we want to keep our communities safe. It’s been repeated so many times over so many years that many of us probably don’t give it a second thought. But we started wondering… is it actually true? The answer surprised us, and it might surprise you too. A recent study took a look at police spending and crime rates and found that there’s no correlation at all between the two.
Seeing that made us dig a little deeper into the numbers. According to data collected over the past 60 years, from 1960 to 2018, spending more on policing doesn’t lower the crime rate and spending less on policing doesn’t increase it. Despite that total lack of correlation, politicians always seem to call for more police spending when the crime rate goes up. But what about when crime goes down—what do they do then? You guessed it! They keep calling for increased police spending. No matter what happens, the response is always the same: Put more money in police budgets.
Police and the Murder Rate
The US crime rate has been steadily dropping over the past 30 years or so. Until the pandemic hit, the violent crime rate had generally been going down as well. But the reality now is that murders and other violent crimes are begining to rise.
This surge in violence undermines public safety in communities around the country. Something has to be done to address it, now, because everybody deserves to feel safe and secure in their homes and communities. But what’s the right solution? As we mentioned, there’s six decades’ worth of data showing no correlation between police spending and the overall crime rate—so we wanted to know if more police spending is the most effective way to address a rise in the violent crime rate.
Aaron Chalfin, a University of Pennsylvania criminologist, found that, historically, it can make a small difference: Adding one new police officer reduced between .06 and 0.1 homicides per year. Any loss of life is unacceptable, and any approach that might save lives should be studied. But if policing might be some small part of the solution when it comes to stopping homicides, we also have an obligation to take a look at its overall impact on communities.
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The Downside to Spending More on Police
We’ve focused so far on what spending more on policing doesn’t do (lower crime rates or prevent crime), but let’s take a moment considering a few of the broader consequences of pouring all that money into police budgets:
- It costs a LOT of money: The US spends $123 billion on policing every year (that’s number one in the world as a percentage of total government expenditures)… and that number just keeps going up (even as vital community services are starved of much-needed funding)
- It leads to more arrests for low-level, nonviolent incidents, which have little to do with public safety and disproportionately impact people of color—those endless rounds of unnecessary arrests contribute to mass incarceration, which harms families and communities
- It increases the likelihood that people of color—due to unconscious bias, overpolicing in Black and Brown neighborhoods, and racial profiling—will come in contact with law enforcement and the criminal justice system
Investing in Our Communities
Police generally don’t prevent crime. Most often, the best they can do is respond to it. Policing doesn’t do anything to address the true roots of crime—it’s sort of like focusing on a symptom instead of trying to find a cure for the disease.
What are some solutions that make a real difference in terms of keeping people safe? You might be surprised.
- Adjusting street lighting: In New York City, a randomized trial of street lighting reduced “outdoor, nighttime index crimes by 36%”
- Cleaning up vacant lots: In Philadelphia, cleaning up vacant lots led to a 29% decrease in gun violence
- Providing financial assistance: Helping people who are experiencing economic uncertainty reduces arrests for violent crimes by 51%
- Investing in grassroots community-building organizations: In an average city of 100,000 people, every ten additional organizations created to address violence and strengthen communities led to a 9% drop in the murder rate.
- Expanding Medicaid and improving access to substance-use treatment and mental health care also contribute, over the long term, to significant reductions in crime
- Having unarmed specialists instead of police respond to 911 calls related to things like mental health and homelessness has started to transform public safety in cities like Eugene, OR, Denver, CO, and Olympia, WA
Removing police from the equation entirely and replacing them with other forms of intervention, along with positive investment in the community, has also proven to be a valuable solution. A recent five-day experiment to pull back on policing in Brooklyn, NY, saw 911 calls drop almost down to zero. Police were replaced by violence interrupter and crisis management groups over a two-block area, while city agencies and non-profits offered education, job, and housing opportunities in tents set up along one of the area’s busiest strips.
This Is What True Public Safety Looks Like
No matter our race or zip code, we all want to feel safe at home and at work, walking around our neighborhood, going out to dinner, or hanging out at the playground with our kids. The increasing violence and homicides in this country is a serious problem that can’t be ignored—which is why it requires an urgent, serious, and reality-based response that will address it at its core and help build safer communities for all of us.
We need to be smart about how we spend our money. Investing our hard-earned dollars in policing, or in any program or service that doesn’t work, just doesn’t make sense. We have to invest in solutions that are proven to help people and keep them safe.
The facts are clear: The best way to lower crime, save lives, and keep people healthy and safe is to take an inclusive, community-based approach to public safety. When people in every community have the support and services they need to take care of themselves and their families, then we will ALL be safer. Learn more and take action to create real public safety in America today.
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