black lives matter

Defunding the Police Is Not Nearly Enough

Children walk into an East Harlem public housing complex in New York City. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by torture, tens of thousands have taken to the streets of America’s cities to demand a radical remaking of law enforcement in their country.

The leaders of this movement have rejected mere reforms to police training or disciplinary procedures as inadequate to the scale of injustice. Rather, they contend that our nation’s approach to crime deterrence must be reimagined, and its budgets rebalanced. In many cities, police departments command more municipal resources than health care, housing, youth programs, and workforce development combined — even as those police departments post abysmal homicide clearance rates, usher teenagers into the carceral system for minor offenses, and routinely violate nonwhite residents’ civil rights.

Protesters deem this state of affairs unacceptable. They want their government to foster public safety in disadvantaged communities. But they do not want it to subject nonwhite people to routine harassment and violence by armed agents of the state, nor to funnel them into a cruel and unusual prison system. Therefore, racial-justice advocates have called for transferring resources from the police to alternative forms of community-based violence prevention and conflict mediation, as well as to social programs that address the root causes of crime. They have summarized this vision with the slogan “defund the police.

This movement’s accomplishments are already considerable. And its aims are just and reasonable. America’s mode of law enforcement is more punitive, violent, and democratically unaccountable than that of any other advanced democracy, while our social spending is aberrantly stingy. Bringing justice and peace to disadvantaged communities throughout our country will undoubtedly require much more than “police reform.”

But doing so will also require more than cutting police budgets.

The activists and community organizers who’ve rallied behind “defund the police” are engaged in discrete struggles over fiscal priorities across a wide range of cities. As such, their focus on contesting police departments’ outsize share of municipal budgets is appropriate. But the fight must not end there. We cannot provide disadvantaged communities with the social resources they deserve — nor, in all likelihood, the social resources necessary for guaranteeing their safety in the absence of conventional policing — merely by reallocating existing public funds. Rather, doing so will require massively increasing overall public spending on these communities. If the end result of the present agitation is to reduce funding for police services, without increasing overall social investment, then we will have made little progress towards becoming a nation whose policies affirm the value of black lives.

And in the present context of widespread fiscal crisis, this outcome is more than possible. For these reasons, massive federal relief for cities today, and durable investments in social welfare and public employment tomorrow, must be understood as racial-justice issues. To “defund the police,” we must refund the social state.

Justice costs more than police departments are worth.

Every year, the United States spends roughly $220 billion on punishing its people. Police forces account for around $115 billion of that sum; the rest goes to maintaining the planet’s most populous prison system. No state in world history has ever directed so much wealth toward arresting and caging its residents.

And yet, if the U.S. shuttered all of its police departments and penitentiaries tomorrow, the resulting savings wouldn’t be nearly enough to provide all Americans with the kind of social welfare state that their counterparts in Western Europe enjoy — nor the one that the leadership of the civil-rights movement thought necessary for securing the safety and social equality of black communities.

The movement to “defund the police” has yet to produce a comprehensive, national blueprint for using social investments to liberate nonwhite communities from their present reliance on law enforcement. But in 1967, Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, and Bayard Rustin drew up an agenda for realizing similar aspirations. In “A Freedom Budget for All Americans,” the civil-rights leaders laid out a vision for fortifying black Americans’ (nominal) legal equality by undergirding it with a set of universal economic rights. The budget called for guaranteeing jobs and “decent and adequate wages” to all who are willing and able to work; a “decent living standard to those who cannot or should not work”; “decent medical care and adequate educational opportunities for all Americans”; “decent homes for all Americans”; and environmentally sound development for the nation as a whole, among other things. (Scholars and activists affiliated with Black Lives Matter have voiced similar demands.)

In the Freedom Budget’s executive summary, Randolph and Rustin explicitly framed their economic agenda as a nonpunitive means of crime deterrence, writing, “The breeding grounds of crime and discontent will be diminished in the same way that draining a swamp cuts down the breeding of mosquitoes.”

At the time, the budget’s authors estimated that realizing these aims would cost about $1.5 trillion over a decade in today’s money. But for a variety of reasons — such as explosive inflation in the costs of health care, housing, and higher education over the past half-century — this appears to be a profound underestimate.

In 2018, the Center for American Progress (CAP) released a proposal for a narrowly targeted version of the federal jobs guarantee that King sought. The plan’s modest aim was to bring the percentage of prime-aged, non-college-educated Americans with jobs back up to the 79 percent level it hit in the year 2000. Before the onset of the coronavirus recession, this would have required providing about 4.4 million unemployed Americans with federal jobs; if each job paid the “decent” wage of $15 an hour, the total cost of the program would be about $158 billion a year (in the present context of mass unemployment, meeting CAP’s standard would require creating public jobs for a much larger number of Americans at a much greater fiscal cost).

Bernie Sanders’s proposal for guaranteeing everyone in the U.S. affordable health care through a single-payer system has a projected annual price tag of $3.2 trillion. Optimistic estimates suggest that the U.S. government could eradicate homelessness for $20 billion a year (providing high-quality social housing for all who want it, meanwhile, might require $250 billion per annum). Joe Biden’s proposal for making higher education affordable for all Americans is pegged at $75 billion per year.

One can debate whether these exact plans are the best modern analogues of the Freedom Budget’s demands. But it is clear that liquidating every police department in the United States would not yield enough public funds to execute King’s vision for preventing crime through social investment. Putting Medicare for All to one side — and ignoring the exorbitant cost of shielding poor communities from the ravages of environmental degradation in an age of climate change — merely ending homelessness, providing a (limited, means-tested) job guarantee, and implementing a (limited, means-tested) plan for college affordability adds up to $253 billion, more than twice what America spends on cops.

To be sure, the notion that all public spending must be offset by new revenue or onerous debt is a superstition at the federal level. But at the municipal level it is not. New York City cannot print its own currency. To dramatically increase social spending at the city level, where police budgets are set, would require either drastically increasing taxation or federal aid. Regardless, simply reallocating law enforcement spending won’t get us where King, Randolph, and Rustin wanted us to go.

Over-policing is a product of America’s underdeveloped social democracy.

America’s exceptionally punitive penal system and its exceptionally low levels of social provision are not unrelated phenomena. As the University of Chicago historian John Clegg and Harvard sociologist Adaner Usmani wrote in Catalyst Journal last year, mass incarceration in the U.S. was born out of mass economic exclusion and fiscal austerity.

Many prominent accounts of mass incarceration describe it as a system of race-based social control; which is to say, as a means of upholding white supremacy in an era when direct racial exclusion had become constitutionally verboten. And there is no doubt that anti-black animus saturates “law and order” politics in the U.S., nor that the criminal-justice system serves as a mechanism of black disenfranchisement in many parts of this country.

But as Clegg and Usmani persuasively argue, the origins of intensive policing and mass incarceration in the U.S. are more complex, and economics-based, than some popular narratives suggest. If America’s bloated carceral state were primarily a tool for maintaining a racial caste system, then one would expect its growth to correspond with growing racial disparities in rates of incarceration. But this is not the case. Although African-Americans are far more likely to be incarcerated than whites, the disparity between the two populations’ rates of imprisonment did not increase dramatically following Richard Nixon’s election in 1968, and has been in decline since 1990.

By contrast, class-based disparities in institutionalization exploded over the last half-century.

Aggressive policing and mass incarceration exacerbate racial inequity and devastate black communities. But the primary function of America’s extraordinarily punitive penal system isn’t to uphold white supremacy. Rather, as the high salience of educational attainment in likelihood of imprisonment indicates, mass incarceration’s core function is to address the criminological symptoms that derive from material deprivation and social exclusion.

And in the 1960s, black urban communities were condemned to such deprivation and exclusion en masse. As Clegg and Usmani write:

In 1910, almost half of working-age black men in America were employed in the agricultural sector. In 1960, less than 8 percent were. Despite some decades of robust job growth, urban labor markets never replaced these lost jobs. The problem only worsened as the flow of [rural black] migrants increased, and urban economies began to change. Thus, while the first wave of migrants (during WWI and the 1920s) had largely been absorbed into industrial jobs, the second wave was invariably less likely to find work. Moreover, due to the segregated nature of urban labor markets, employment opportunities for the children of first-wave migrants were undermined by competition from the second wave.

Underlying the declining fortunes of rural migrants was a transformation in urban labor markets that was particularly consequential for unskilled men. In key areas like Detroit, deindustrialization began as early as the 1950s, as industry relocated first to the suburbs and then to the Sunbelt. The loss of key manufacturing jobs was exacerbated by automation and rising foreign competition … As the urban economy changed, the social prospects for those who remained in the cities plummeted further … When [white] homeowners left the city, they took their tax dollars with them. The loss of revenue starved city-level social services, including education, public housing, and policing … The result was a vicious spiral: as cities hemorrhaged tax revenues, overcrowded schools lost funding, the housing stock deteriorated, and crime rose, the pressure to leave mounted. But the poor (disproportionately black) could not leave. They had no collateral and poor credit, and their access to the suburbs was further limited by zoning restrictions, minimum lot-sizes, and a deliberate lack of public transport. They remained trapped in central cities that were being abandoned by both capital and the state, locked out of the consumption boom enjoyed by the rest of the country.

The inner cities’ economic dispossession coincided with a surge in the share of young men in the U.S. population, as the baby boom generation entered early adulthood. Since young men are the primary perpetrators of crime, demographic change alone was likely to bring an uptick in violence to the U.S. beginning in the 1960s. Clegg and Usmani contend that when the incendiary material deprivation of black urban communities combined with this demographic tinder, an inevitable fire turned into a historic conflagration. Locked out of legitimate forms of income generation, young black men were pushed into illicit trades regulated by violence. The gutting of local budgets reduced the prevalence of police — while the racist brutality of law enforcement dampened cooperation with homicide investigators — thereby reducing the downside risks of criminal enterprise. Meanwhile, the collapse of employment and public investment undermined communal cohesion, and thus, informal social controls on aggression. As a result, America’s homicide rate doubled between 1960 and 1980. (To be sure, there is no firm sociological consensus about the origins of the crime boom. And it’s likely that factors beyond those that Clegg and Usmani cite contributed to the phenomenon; it seems doubtful that demographics alone can explain why crime began falling so rapidly in the mid-1990s. Nevertheless, the causal relationships they posit between various forms of economic disadvantage and the prevalence of crime all have significant empirical support.)

As concentrated poverty curdled into criminal violence, an organic, cross-racial demand for more policing and incarceration arose. As the Freedom Budget suggests, black communities also wanted nonpunitive solutions to the epidemic of violent crime that afflicted them. For a little while, through Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program, they received such solutions in partial form.

But putting police officers on street corners and violent criminals in prison is a lot cheaper than guaranteeing quality employment and decent living standards to all. And progressive forces in the United States ultimately failed to make the Freedom Budget a reality. The causes of this failure were myriad, but the fact that white supremacy led many white workers to reject cross-racial alliances and oppose universal social provision was surely a leading one.

America’s fledgling social democracy exited stage right. Over-policing and mass incarceration entered to fill the void.

The only thing worse than over-policing may be under-policing (in the absence of well-funded alternatives).

This history highlights the fact that America’s exceptionally punitive criminal-justice system is a (loathsome) remedy for a genuine social problem. Intensive policing in black communities does not exist to reproduce white supremacy; it exists because white supremacy condemned wide swathes of the black public to economic dispossession, and then blocked the path to more humane means of combating the violence that dispossession fostered. The fact that African-Americans are disproportionately likely to live in neighborhoods with high homicide rates is itself an index of racial oppression. Thus, if our aim is to affirm the value of black lives, then we must be as concerned with redressing the injustice of concentrated criminal violence as we are with combating the obscenity of racist police killings.

And there is reason to fear that in the absence of much higher investments in community-based gun violence prevention, conflict mediation, mental health, public employment, job training, health care, education, and other vital social services, cutting police budgets could result in more African-Americans losing their lives to homicide.

It is true that American police departments are exceptionally bad at solving crimes. About 40 percent of murders in the U.S. go unpunished. And in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of major cities, that percentage is far higher. But this does not mean that the police are completely ineffective in reducing the prevalence of violent crime in nonwhite communities. Although our cops are poor at investigating murders, they are often competent at sitting in parked cars or standing on street corners. And criminological research suggests that the mere passive presence of police in a given jurisdiction deters violent crime. For this reason, higher police staffing levels tend to correlate with lower rates of criminal victimization. (Notably, there is no evidence that the extraordinary punitiveness of America’s criminal-justice system has any deterrent effect. People do not consult sentencing guidelines before deciding whether to commit a crime, but they do tend to look around for cops.)

This empirical literature is buttressed by recent developments in the cities of Chicago, Baltimore, and Camden. On Sunday, May 31, Chicago suffered its most violent day in six decades: As police busied themselves with protesters, 18 people were murdered. Local reverend Michael Pfleger suggested that the explosion of violence was a direct consequence of the reduction in police presence, telling the Chicago Sun-Times, “On Saturday and particularly Sunday, I heard people saying all over, ‘Hey, there’s no police anywhere, police ain’t doing nothing.’”

Baltimore’s police department ostensibly orchestrated a work slowdown in 2015, following the indictment of some of its members in the Freddie Gray case. A surge in homicides ensued, with the city’s per capita murder rate hitting its highest level on record in 2017.

Camden, meanwhile, disbanded its police department seven years ago, and proceeded to see a 42 percent reduction in violent crimes. But this is not the proof of concept for cheap-and-easy police abolition that some have made out to be. For Camden, dissolving the police department was a means of busting its union, and creating a less cost-intensive, but larger, police force. In per capita terms, Camden is now one of the most heavily policed cities in the U.S.

This correlation between more cops and fewer violent crimes is not lost on many of those most exposed to the dual oppressions of police brutality and high homicide rates. In a 2018 Vox/Civis poll, African-Americans supported a proposal for increasing police budgets and “hiring more police officers in high crime areas” by a margin of 60 to 18 percent.

Graphic: Civis Poll for Vox

None of this means that there aren’t more effective means of deterring crime than the police. And it certainly does not mean that the odious “side effects” of American policing are remotely acceptable. Black communities should not have to choose between having their young people harassed, beaten, arrested for trivial offenses, bilked for fines, and occasionally murdered by police officers, or having their children killed in greater numbers by their peers.

But the fact that homicide rates tend to go up when police presence declines does mean that there is little reason to believe defunding law enforcement will preserve black lives, if such a measure is not accompanied by substantial increases in other forms of crime prevention and social investment.

Transforming law enforcement is possible. But only if we demand more than well-targeted austerity.

When Randolph and Rustin asserted that passing the Freedom Budget would diminish crime “in the same way that draining a swamp cuts down the breeding of mosquitoes,” they were describing an intuition, not the conclusion of a study.

But today, the peer-reviewed journals have caught up with our civil-rights visionaries. In a 2017 review of criminological literature, researchers from the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania found that increases in policing manpower reduced crime — but increases in wages and job opportunities did, too. A 2016 report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers similarly concluded that “a 10 percent increase in wages for non-college educated men results in approximately a 10 to 20 percent reduction in crime rates.”

If we provide disadvantaged areas with the employment opportunities, economic development, housing, and social welfare services that they deserve, while developing community-based institutions of crime deterrence, we can plausibly render policing as we’ve known it obsolete.

By contrast, if we make modest cuts to police budgets — and use the freed-up funds to make recession-induced cuts to municipal social services only slightly smaller than they otherwise would have been — we may well condemn more black Americans to violent deaths. As of this writing, we are heading toward the latter outcome. This week in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would cut some funding for the NYPD, and redirect it to social services — which will, nevertheless, see a potentially multibillion-dollar overall budget cut.

If we stipulate that there is no alternative to implementing draconian, economically irrational austerity in the middle of recession, then the diversion of a sliver of NYPD funds to youth services and conflict mediation is a win. But there is no reason to make that stipulation; not when the protestors in our streets have Republicans shaking in their jackboots. Few objectives are more integral to advancing racial justice, or laying the groundwork for a world beyond policing, than defeating fiscal austerity. To win that fight, we must make our calls for new spending on social nourishment as loud as our demands for defunding collective punishment.

Defunding the Police Is Not Nearly Enough