Yet both the “amateur” and the “professional” should beware.
It’s critical for reformers not to misread the great racial awakening. Even as many took to the streets to “defund the police,” city residents, especially those who have endured histories of overpolicing and underprotection, hold complicated views on these issues. Right after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis ignited a conflagration that consumed the nation, 50 percent of Black voters in that city opposed reducing the size of the city’s police force, and 49 percent believed that doing so would have a “negative” effect on public safety, according to a poll conducted for a consortium of Minnesota news outlets. Last September, a poll conducted for the same group, with PBS’s “Frontline,” found that 74 percent of Black voters in Minneapolis said they believed crime had increased in the city. Unsurprisingly, the proportion of Black voters opposing reductions in the size of the city’s police force had climbed to 75 percent.
Violence also looms large in the minds of New Yorkers. When asked, “What worries you about living in NYC?” in a recent survey, respondents ranked crime and public safety near the top of concerns after the cost of living and the cost of housing. When asked to list priorities for the new mayoral administration, public safety, including guns and drugs, topped the list. Only 3 percent mentioned police and criminal justice reform, including 3 percent of Black respondents and 3.2 percent of Latinos.
Even so, professional Democrats should resist the temptation to find refuge in the political security blanket of “law and order.” Palpable fear in the streets must be met with seriousness, compassion and nuance: People want more than just punishment. In that same poll of New Yorkers, when asked “What would make you feel safer in your neighborhood?,” respondents prioritized “more stable and affordable housing,” “more mental health support and outreach” and “more job opportunities for young people” over “more police presence.”
These beliefs are not contradictory. City residents seek instant relief from the pangs of violence and a long-term cure for the underlying disease. A few years ago, Lisa L. Miller, a political scientist, found that “aggregate public attention to crime is more in line with actual violent crime than researchers assume” and that most people believe both law enforcement and social welfare policy contribute to greater public safety. Political elites are the problem. Attentive to public outcry and law enforcement groups, they tend to expand capacity around policing and punishment without increasing resources for social programs that could also decrease violence.
Today, Democrats could chart a new path. Progressive D.A.s and Democratic mayors, with the support of Democrats in Washington and state capitals, could begin a coordinated attack on violence that responds to the public’s desire for both immediate solutions and more gradual structural remedies.
Consider two examples: Aaron Chalfin, a University of Pennsylvania criminologist, and his colleagues recently found that in the aftermath of targeted gang “takedowns” (arresting dozens of feuding gang members at the same time) in housing projects in New York City, shootings and homicides in those communities declined by roughly a third. On the other hand, the Manhattan Institute’s Charles Fain Lehman found that someone who gets a summer job is between 30 percent and 40 percent less likely to be charged with either violent or property crime. These findings suggest that focusing enforcement remedies on the small number of individuals responsible for most of the crime and expanding capacity around effective community-based solutions could offer protection for the disadvantaged without subjecting them to indiscriminate harassment, brutality or mass imprisonment. But a party at war with itself can provide neither greater peace nor sustainable reform.
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