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Fixing the police and reducing homicide: Yes, Congress can do both

Congressional leaders continue negotiating over police reform legislation against a backdrop of two troubling trends: falling confidence in law enforcement and rising homicide rates. The conventional wisdom is that the confidence drop boosts reform efforts, while the homicide jump creates skepticism about major changes. However, a close look shows that, together, these trends may provide an opportunity to reduce both violent crime and help restore confidence in the police.

Public confidence in the police has fallen considerably. Last year, a Gallup poll found just 48 percent of Americans expressed confidence in police — the lowest number since at least 1992. More troubling, it is lowest among Black Americans, with a mere 19 percent expressing confidence in law enforcement. This is the lowest number in at least three decades.

Meanwhile, homicide rates have risen sharply across the country. The Council on Criminal Justice reported a 30 percent increase in the national murder rate in 2020. The U.S. murder rate is still low compared to prior decades. For example, it’s about half of its peak in 1980. However, murders remain higher than rates in the early 1960s, and they remain considerably higher than rates in other Western nations.

These two trends–lack of confidence in law enforcement and spiking homicide rates– are likely related. Credible research has found perceived police illegitimacy is correlated with heightened violence. And evidence suggests crime victims in communities with low police confidence often retaliate with violence instead of calling the authorities. Repeated acts of retributive violence can create a negative feedback loop from which escape is increasingly difficult.

Congress can provide a way out that addresses both violent crime and police reform. However, doing so would require people on all sides to concede potentially uncomfortable truths.

For example, progressives should acknowledge that violent crime creates staggering costs and that strong and durable evidence suggests police reduce crime. Several studies have shown boosting police resources reduces crime, and particularly homicides. Given the enormous economic cost of homicide, and that, per capita, America employs considerably fewer police officers than the world average, many American cities could see benefits from increasing investments in the police.

But conservatives should also acknowledge that bad policing generates enormous costs. An honest assessment would recognize that distrust of police is rooted in systemic brutality and abuses of power, that claims of racial bias in law enforcement reflect both lived experiences and empirical evidence; and that hundreds of civilian deaths by police every year are unnecessary. Research that finds adding police benefits Black residents through crime reduction also indicates that doing so risks subjecting them to the worst elements of the criminal justice system.

A consensus on these points would create an opportunity for a bipartisan effort to reduce violent crime and restore confidence in the police. Congress could boost law enforcement resources through federal grants, much like President Obama did in 2009. This money would give police departments resources to hire additional personnel, solve outstanding cases, and expand promising investigative methods.

But the police shouldn’t be given more money to do more of the same. Rather, grants should be tied to meaningful reforms. Opportunities for improvements abound, including better training for recruits, strengthening accountability mechanisms for misconduct, empowering police chiefs to enforce department rules, and improving homicide clearance rates. Importantly, while federal benchmarks should be clear and enforceable, cities should be free to experiment with solutions to meet them.

Congress should also enable non-police actors to take responsibility for addressing violence and disorder. Along with approving investments in promising community-based violence reduction programs like those in President Biden’s American Jobs Plan, Congress should consider investing in strategies that reduce the burdens on police to respond to every problem.

A compromise that invests in police while demanding meaningful reforms could be a moderate fantasy in a polarized world, of course. Perhaps too few Democrats are willing to take on the “Defund” left, and too many Republicans fear blowback from their “Back the Blue” base.

However, there is hope. Polling suggests most Americans — including most Black Americansdon’t want to defund the police. Still, they do want better policing and lower crime. A bipartisan “grand bargain” aimed at delivering both would earn broad support. But, most importantly, it would help restore public confidence in police, and save lives.

Greg Newburn is director of criminal justice at the Niskanen Center. His previous positions include state policy director and Florida director for FAMM; chair of the Florida-based “Yes on 11” political committee; and director of student programs at the Cato Institute.

Tags Black Lives Matter defund the police Joe Biden Law enforcement police reform

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