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What to Do About the Police?
Progressives regroup for another Defund battle
Last week, I published a piece in New York Magazine that angered a number of leftists. It concerned the New York City Council, where the caucus made up of self-identified progressive Democrats shrunk from 35 to 20. At stake was the future of policing: the leaders of the Progressive Caucus wanted to make, among many other policy demands, the reduction of the “size and scope” of the NYPD and the Department of Correction a priority. For a mix of Democrats who belonged to the caucus—some representing white wealthy neighborhoods in Manhattan, others hailing from working-class Black enclaves in Brooklyn and Queens, and a third segment facing tough re-election fights against Republicans—the far-reaching aim was too much to stomach. Progressives and leftists, in general, rejoiced. A 35-member group was viewed as mostly toothless—might as well let the pretenders walk.
There’s plenty of logic to this. A smaller caucus will probably be more disciplined and united, ready, at last, to challenge Eric Adams’ City Hall. Though Adams himself is now an unpopular mayor, his administration relatively rudderless, he’s met little meaningful political opposition from the City Council. He got, for the most part, the budget he wanted last year, and progressives failed to pressure him as he hiked rents on working and middle-class tenants. That all may change. If you’re a left-leaning Democrat, there’s little incentive to acquiesce to Adams. He is still a tough opponent, with a sizable number of working-class voters and very wealthy donors at his side, but he’s hardly impregnable.
Leftists, especially those closely aligned with the Democratic Socialists of America, were angry that I suggested it was tactically questionable for the Progressive Caucus to shrink its ranks through a de facto litmus test built around defunding the NYPD. Let me state, plainly, what I think of the NYPD and police power, since there’s been much flying around in the hothouse of Twitter over what my views might be. I believe the NYPD must be demilitarized, its post-9/11 build-up pared back. Many of the surveillance practices of the NYPD, including the use of facial recognition technology, deserve scrutiny and should be banned. Many interactions between armed police and civilians do not need to happen; efforts to pair officers with social workers or offer non-police responses to mental health distress calls should be expanded. Police cannot solve poverty, homelessness, or mental illness. Ideally, police wouldn’t carry guns at all, but the proliferation of firearms in the United States makes implementing such a policy very difficult. Outside actors, including politicians, DAs, and civilian review boards, must be greatly empowered to hold the police accountable. In New York, the NYPD behaves more like an independent fiefdom than a taxpayer-funded municipal agency. No mayor has ever properly checked police power and progressives should make it their goal to elect someone who will. I am dubious of the narrative that “broken windows” policing or the alchemy of Rudy Giuliani and Bill Bratton forced crime down in the 1990s. New York’s crime decline mirrored national trends—and began before Giuliani took office—and didn’t correlate, in any particular way, to the headcount of the NYPD. Bill de Blasio ended the abuse of stop-and-frisk and crime continued to plummet, with New York recording less than 300 murders in 2017. Until the pandemic, the murder rate in the city remained historically low.
When it comes to prisons, my views are probably more radical than most. Ultimately, I think the Norwegian model is the most successful: well-funded, genuinely rehabilitative facilities that focus on making prisoners, upon release, functioning members of society should be the norm. The United States locks up far too many people and does an awful job of preparing prisoners for re-entry into the working world. One fantasy well-meaning liberals and leftists must overcome, though, is that most people sitting in federal prisons are there for non-violent crimes. A true decarceration effort will mean ending life sentences, as they do in Norway, and eventually releasing those who have done more than used or dealt drugs. Prisons will always need to exist—every modern nation in the world has them—but there’s no reason they can’t try to fix people. We will all be better off for it.
None of this, though, means the police should be abolished. There’s a significant grouping of leftists who merely want to defund, not abolish, the police, and increase social services in neglected neighborhoods. And there’s a segment that wants to go further: defunding the police, they say, must end in abolition. This is the goal of Alex Vitale, the prominent academic, who published the well-reviewed The End of Policing before the Defund movement kicked off, in earnest, after George Floyd’s death. This is the goal of Tiffany Cabán, the socialist city councilwoman who was nearly elected Queens District Attorney in 2019. If her well-articulated public safety plan does not call, directly, for the abolishing of all police, her own public statements are unequivocal. “Diversity won’t save us. Body cameras won’t save us. Dressings on an irredeemable, barbaric system hell bent on the violent maintenance of order, control and domination masquerading as the only possible stewards of safety,” Cabán tweeted last month after the killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. “Defund and abolish.”
Defund and abolish. There is the political argument for such a cause and then, more importantly, the moral argument. The politics are treacherous at best. The framing of “defund” polls poorly and no Democrat, campaigning outside of a very liberal district, can win on a platform of significantly cutting police funding or abolishing the department. Even progressives in swing states, like John Fetterman, rarely embrace slashing the budgets of departments. In his winning Pennsylvania Senate campaign, Fetterman cut TV ads with law enforcement while defending his record as a criminal justice reformer. Bernie Sanders, the self-identified socialist who almost single-handedly revived the American left, has never backed defunding or abolishing the police. Rather, he’s spoken of raising pay for new officers in a bid to recruit higher quality people into law enforcement. “Do I think we should not have police departments in America? No, I don’t. There’s no city in the world that does not have police departments,” Sanders said rather bluntly in 2020, at the height of the George Floyd protests.
The rejoinder, from Defund leftists, would be that Sanders is elderly, white, and out-of-touch. Fetterman, too, is a white man who once pulled a gun on a Black jogger. But what of the nonwhite politicians? Prominent Black Democrats like Jim Clyburn and Gregory Meeks are staunch opponents of defunding the police. Younger leftists like Jamaal Bowman are supporters, but there’s little evidence of a mass yearning for police to entirely disappear in working-class Black and Latino communities. Victims of police brutality want better policing, not the absence of it. They want crimes solved. They want justice for the loved ones who have been murdered. This can be hard for left-wing activists, academics, and politicians to accept. In Southeast Queens, the historically Black, middle-class swath of New York that offers, perhaps, the most reliable Democratic vote in the five boroughs, there’s been a decades-long push to add a new police precinct. Locals celebrated when construction finally began. In a Defund or abolish regime, even with safety net investments, this police precinct would close. A leftist is put into the uncomfortable position of lecturing voters on what they should actually want, not what they profess to want.
There’s a strangely libertarian tinge to the leftist arguments around defunding and abolishing the police. The NYPD budget is described as “bloated” in the same way a Manhattan Institute scholar might refer to the Department of Education. To pay for non-violent responders, mental health clinics, and other community-based organizations that could reduce the need for violent police interactions, the department itself must be slashed so the money can be made available. The old liberal would say that we can merely increase the municipal budget or raise taxes to pay for these investments. Some programs, in the context of the New York City budget—$100 billion or so—would cost relatively little. In 2020, leftists backed cutting the NYPD in half, and freeing up that cash for social services. The police department has an operating budget of around $6 billion, which would mean about $3 billion, under this schema, would be available to fund parks, schools, libraries, and whatever else. The city’s education department has a budget north of $30 billion, dwarfing what is spent on police; $3 billion for city schools is helpful, but not transformative. It could offer a nice boost to parks or homeless services. But why not just fund these properly anyway? It shouldn’t take a bloody fight over the police department’s future to ensure public libraries can hire adequate staff and be open from morning to night, seven days a week. More crucially, the aggressive defunding of police won’t be enough to pay for the safety net that we need. The NYPD’s entire budget, pension obligations included, won’t adequately fund the mass construction of affordable housing or a single-payer healthcare system for the state. In general, state and local governments don’t spend all that much on policing.
The idea, of course, is that it’s a moral imperative that the presence of police be reduced. For many leftists, the institution of policing is beyond repair. It has failed, so let’s drain it now. This is not so far off from what conservatives say about public education, especially in big cities. New York City spends plenty per pupil and still, among the poorest students, the outcomes are not ideal. Why not defund the public schools and try something else? The charter movement, in essence, is built on this premise. Public transit is inefficient too. Shouldn’t the Metropolitan Transportation Authority stand to lose a quarter or half its budget? Policing, obviously, is not the same as paying for a bus or keeping a school open, but this is rhetoric any leftist should be thinking carefully about. Messaging has consequences. The zeal for an identity-based social justice politics that took hold in the 2010s was exploited by a law-and-order Black Democrat in 2021 to secure the most powerful mayoral office in America.
Modern liberals and leftist struggle to acknowledge progress. Profound pessimism over American policing and race relations culminated in the movement to defund and abolish police, as well as the rise of rapacious DEI consultants in white-collar institutions. Police kill too many innocent people. Yet police, in large cities at least, are far less corrupt and violent than they were a half century ago. There are no longer marauding racists like Frank Rizzo heading up departments. Widespread racketeering of the likes that Frank Serpico exposed in New York is mostly gone. Beat cops no longer act on the behest of particular political machines. Incidents of police brutality and corruption are investigated rather than actively ignored, as they were for many decades. Policing remains a deeply flawed institution, but critics should not make the mistake of conflating individual departments. The Tyre Nichols murder was so horrific and galvanizing because it remains relatively rare; the predatory nature of these Memphis police officers shouldn’t be the standard by which a cop in New York or Los Angeles is judged, just as we wouldn’t say the failure of a public school in Arkansas or Oregon means schooling in New York or Delaware must be radically reimagined tomorrow.
The Defund advocates are right that policing needs to change. But smaller departments won’t be more humane. After the 1970s fiscal crisis, the NYPD bled headcount for more than a decade. With fewer officers on the beat, police brutality did not abate. Murders went unsolved. At the same time, the city was slashing funding to schools, libraries, the sanitation department, and the fire department. With a stronger social safety net, the late 1970s and 1980s in New York, for the poorest at least, may not have been so dismal. But would policing have improved? My concern, ultimately, is what a world without police begins to look like. Defund advocates imagine some version of a Scandinavian utopia. I am less sure, and not just because even the Dutch have police departments. If state-sponsored law enforcement vanishes, the private sector will inevitably fill the void. Instead of a police department accountable to an elected mayor and city council, private contractors and militias will mete out justice for those who can pay for it. Community groups could attempt to mediate certain disputes, but who will run these groups, and will they, unaccountable to voters, be just? Even in the most wondrous and advanced socialist society, there will be crime. Human beings will steal, rape, and murder. As optimistic as I am about human nature, this is inevitable. In the world beyond policing, who is present to hear complaints, gather evidence, and chase down those who have hurt others? If I discover the dead body of my friend, what do I do? The most thoughtful police abolitionists have proposed non-violent, publicly-funded civilian corps to handle most of these tasks. Perhaps they can. But there will be, inevitably, limitations to this approach if violent crimes must be solved or prevented in the first place. New failures will take the place of old. If more bloodshed is the result, the masses will not tolerate it.