Don’t believe anyone who tells you crime rates call for more policing and jailing

Chris Harris at a press conference demanding an end to the meet and confer negotiations with the Austin Police Association on August 8, 2017.

The FBI has released its annual report on crime data in the U.S. for the year 2016 and the primary findings include an overall decline in crime for the 15th year in a row, a decline in property crime for the 14th consecutive year, but an increase in the violent crime rate nationally for the second straight year. In response, we must support continued decarceration efforts and reject any calls to return to the insidious policies that lead to mass incarceration and over-policing, which overwhelmingly prey on people of color and contradict a growing body of evidence that decarceration and less policing make us safer.

Despite the uptick in violent crime since 2014, we are still in the midst of a remarkable long-term decline in both violent and property crime at the national level. A deeper dive into the numbers from 2016 once again show violence, particularly homicides, heavily concentrated in a few neighborhoods in some of the biggest major cities. Preliminary analysis of the 2017 crime stats shows that violent crime will decrease once again, signaling that we are not at the beginning of an upward swing.

The current downward trend in national crime rates has coincided, since 2007, with concerted efforts by most states to reduce prison populations. Nationally, the crime and incarceration rate fell together from 2008 to 2014. From 2010 to 2015, the 10 states that cut imprisonment the most saw crime fall almost twice as much as the 10 states with the most growth in imprisonment. As the author of a major new review of incarceration studies found, “...the cost-benefit case for decarceration is a no-brainer: all benefit and no cost.”

Despite these reforms, the U.S. continues to dominate the world in locking people up. Only eight other nations beat any of the 50 states, the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico in incarceration rate. Yet any increase in crime in the U.S., real or imagined, is followed closely by “tough-on-crime” appeals that mean more inmates serving longer sentences. If putting people in cages reduced crime, we would be the safest nation on the planet. We aren’t even close. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, for the last 20 years at least, incarceration is responsible for “essentially zero” crime reduction.

However, focusing exclusively on the ineffectiveness of mass incarceration in reducing crime whitewashes its lineage to Jim Crow-era laws and slavery. A lineage that today extends to draconian immigration policies leading to mass detention and deportation, justified by familiar fear-mongering about criminality. While not reducing crime, mass incarceration has ultimately been effective in achieving its primary objectives — controlling Black and Brown labor and limiting Black and Brown citizenship.

Similarly, “proactive policing” strategies based on the Broken Windows Theory, such as “stop-and-frisk,” have become popular remedies to reported increases in crime, despite showing little to no impact on crime reduction. For instance, while New York City’s crime decline of the 1990s was initially credited to these techniques, the crime rate continues to fall even though New York’s use of stop-and-frisk was found unconstitutional and mostly discontinued in 2011.

New evidence reveals there may even be a positive correlation between less policing and crime reduction.

In late 2014, New York City experienced intense public backlash over a grand jury’s decision not to indict police for the murder of Eric Garner. Two weeks later, two police officers were murdered. In response, the city’s police department defiantly halted “order maintenance policing,” or the aggressive enforcement of low-level crimes that had been the pretext for arresting Garner. While they surely hoped and believed this “slowdown” would cause the city to be torn apart by violence, a recent study examining this seven-week period shows reports of major crimes actually fell by between three and six percent. NYPD’s intended punishment of an ungrateful populace completely backfired and they instead contributed evidence to calls for permanently curtailing their patrols. As a resident positively affected by the slowdown remarked, “This is how it’s supposed to be. We feel safe.” In short, prevention-focused strategies that lead to over-policing may actually be increasing violent crime and are definitely decreasing safety, both for officers and the public.

But as with mass incarceration, to refute over-policing purely based on its ineffectiveness in reducing crime is to ignore its blatantly racist roots in the intentional subjugation of Blacks. Racial bias — both implicit and explicit — remains extremely prevalent within our society and policing, such that proactive policing tactics will inevitably lead to racially disparate and tragic outcomes that are completely disconnected from the stated goal of crime fighting. For example, recent analysis from Philadelphia in 2014 and 2015 found police subjected residents in all-Black neighborhoods to high rates of stop-and-frisk, even those Black neighborhoods with low-crime rates. Only the total abandonment of proactive policing can prevent community members from being subjected to repeated, degrading, race-based confrontations with law enforcement.

Fortunately, law enforcement priorities and practices are largely controlled at the local level, meaning there are opportunities to affect change in the short-term by:

  • Advocating for district attorneys and judges to decriminalize low-level offences; increase and support diversion and treatment options over jailing; seek shorter sentences wherever the law allows; and support exoneration efforts;

  • Pressuring local governments to end proactive policing practices and to reallocate police dollars to investigations, crime labs, victims services, and community reinvestments that stamp out the root causes of crime, and;

  • Shining a light on police brutality and misconduct to force departments to implement more stringent use-of-force and de-escalation policies, and accept greater transparency, accountability and public oversight.

For the long term, we must build (or re-build) and scale alternative community-based structures that support de-escalation, conflict resolution, mental health intervention, and restorative justice without the involvement of someone with a gun or a badge. Ultimately, it is irrefutable that communities that need fewer police and prisons are safer and healthier communities. For the countless tragedies the state has inflicted on individuals, families and communities with mass incarceration and over-policing, producing no tangible crime reduction, we are compelled morally and logically to hasten their end.