Tag Archives: criminal justice research

When Good Ideas Get Bad Slogans

Among so-called “woke” Americans, certain verities seem obvious–so obvious, in fact, that it becomes easy to believe that most other people see things the same way, and to dismiss folks who fail to agree as dishonest or racist. As a result, they downplay or entirely ignore the need to educate and communicate, a need they often denigrate as “PR,” with the result that they often end up undermining support for the reforms they want to see.

Perhaps the most vivid example of this phenomenon was the slogan “Defund the Police,” which gained currency after the murder of George Floyd. A March USA Today/Ipsos Poll found that voters opposed “defunding the police” 58-18.

When most Americans hear “defund,” they hear only “take money away.” They don’t hear “change funding formulas to supplement policing with social services so that police can be freed up to focus on actual criminal behavior.”

The repeated use of that unfortunate phrasing allowed a variety of political candidates– Republican and Democrat alike–to reinforce a number of widely accepted misconceptions about crime and policing. The Brookings Institution recently addressed seven of those misconceptions, which it called myths.

 The most obvious–and intellectually dishonest– was the assertion that “defunding” really meant “abolish.” Granted, the “defund” language was misleading, but only the most partisan observers actually thought the movement wanted to eliminate policing.

More understandable–if equally incorrect–was the belief that reducing the presence of police would usher in an increase in social disorder.

Another misconception is that police forces are what maintains order. However, studies have found that the best tools to establish peaceful societies are equity in education and infrastructure. Indeed, research shows that lack of education and illiteracy are some of the most significant predictors of future prison populations.

When it addressed the notion that police protect society from violence, the Brookings article included some rather shocking (at least to me) data. Evidently, research shows that 70% of robberies, 66% of rapes, 47% of aggravated assaults, and 38% of murders go unsolved each year–a rather daunting catalogue of police performance.

Research also rebuts the belief that spending money on community programs wouldn’t affect crime rates; the article links to studies demonstrating–among other things– that individuals who receive a quality education are less likely to become involved in the criminal justice system.(interestingly, the article also notes that police officers who have had more education are less likely to be the recipient of misconduct complaints.)

And although there is a widespread belief that police work is primarily focused on crime prevention, that also turns out to be a misconception.

There is minimal evidence that police surveillance results in reduced crime or prevents crime. For instance, research showed 90% of the people that were stopped in the NYPD’s controversial stop and frisk program were not committing any crime. While it is true that police do apprehend individuals that violate the law, this is one of several components of their responsibilities.

Finally, the article debunks the notion that “Defund the Police” was simply an emotional response to the appalling sight of a police officer killing George Floyd.

Some opponents of cutting police budgets view the movement as an emotional response to police misconduct rather than a well-thought-out campaign. However, a study with 60 years of data indicates that increases in spending do not reduce crime. Which begs the question, how is 60 years of a failed objective any better? Yes, the movement gained attention because of tragic events in 2020, but the evidence supporting the movement is based on hard data and proven methods.

Police reform is long overdue,  and we have had thousands of opportunities to make the appropriate changes. In 2020, the murder of George Floyd garnered national attention that has caused many to take a long, hard look at our democratic systems, cultural identities, and the necessary steps towards equal protection. We do know that more traditional policing is not the answer.

Those in the legal community who have long been aware of the research and the problems with current police culture were appalled by the “defund” slogan, knowing that–rather than calling attention to mountains of data and the necessity of different approaches–it would only antagonize police and frighten the public, rather than communicating the need to alter a currently ineffective approach to public safety.

People who really want change rather than an opportunity to pontificate understand that language matters.