Abolishing Common Sense

The idea of eliminating police has little to do with the real world.


by Connor Harris

The George Floyd protests have given momentum to radical plans to defund or even abolish the police. Proposals for abolition are vague on details and often give the sense that the term “abolition” was chosen more for shock value than for accuracy, but they typically include a massive diversion of public spending from law enforcement to other social programs. Police abolitionists believe that America spends too much on law enforcement and too little on housing, education, and social services. Funding these services more generously, they argue, could reduce serious crime more effectively.

The Minneapolis anti-police activist group MPD150, for instance, explains that police abolition does not mean “instantly defunding every department in the world” but rather a “gradual process of strategically reallocating resources, funding, and responsibility away from police and toward community-based models of safety, support, and prevention,” in which “mental health service providers, social workers, victim/survivor advocates, religious leaders, neighbors and friends” play important roles. MPD150 admits that “during the long transition process, we may need a small, specialized class of public servants whose job is to respond to violent crimes” but insists that these public servants would have fewer responsibilities than present-day cops, especially once many minor offenses such as drug possession are decriminalized.

These proposals are based on either over-optimistic or false beliefs about the funding and efficacy of social programs. First, American police spending is hardly out of line with the rest of the world. State and local police spending in fiscal year 2017 totaled $115 billion; federal law enforcement spending included $14.4 billion on top of that. Altogether, spending on police totaled 0.66 percent of the 2017 GDP of $19.5 trillion. This is low by the standards of developed nations. Member countries of the European Union spend an average of 0.9 percent of their GDP on the police, with individual nations ranging from 0.5 percent to 1.4 percent. The Urban Institute notes that though police spending has grown in absolute terms since the late 1970s, it has consistently remained at just below 4 percent of total state spending, and that 97 percent of police spending goes to labor costs—not extravagant military-grade equipment, as critics claim.

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On the local level, police spending is dwarfed by education, which accounts for 40 percent of local government spending nationwide, versus just 6 percent for police. Critics point to cities where police spending dominates budgets, such as Chicago (39 percent) and Los Angeles (30 percent), but these cities are in states where public education is handled by autonomous school-district authorities separate from municipalities. Still, police abolitionists continue to circulate misleading claims. One tweet from a high school football coach in San Diego, which has racked up more than 660,000 likes, sums up the conventional wisdom: “Defunding the police sounds radical until you realize we’ve been defunding education for years.”

As the Reason Foundation’s Corey DeAngelis points out, however, education spending per capita in the United States has almost quadrupled since 1960 and as a percentage of GDP ranks in the middle of the pack among OECD nations. The U.S. spends 3.2 percent of GDP on primary, secondary, and vocational education, more than Japan (2.5 percent), Germany (2.6 percent), or Austria (3.0 percent). Scant evidence exists to demonstrate that the additional spending does any good. New York State spends twice as much per pupil on schools as Florida and Texas for indistinguishable results on student achievement, and the massive increase in school spending since the 1960s can hardly be said to have reduced crime.

Other social services that police abolitionists say should get more money are already well funded. For example, 8toAbolition offers an elaborate plan for “safe housing for everyone,” which includes “repurposing empty buildings, houses, apartments, and hotels to house people experiencing homelessness.” But many cities with large homeless populations already spend substantially on the problem. New York City, for example, spent $3.2 billion on programs for an estimated homeless population of 61,000, or more than $50,000 per year per homeless resident. San Francisco spends even more per capita: half a billion dollars for a homeless population of just 8,000. (The most significant weakness of homelessness policy in New York, if anything, is too little policing: shelters are so notoriously violent that many of the city’s homeless find sleeping outside safer.)

Abolitionists’ faith in social programs as a remedy for crime is overly optimistic. “Crime isn’t random,” MPD150 asserts. “Most of the time, it happens when someone has been unable to meet their basic needs through other means. So to really ‘fight crime,’ we don’t need more cops; we need more jobs, more educational opportunities, more arts programs, more community centers, more mental health resources, and more of a say in how our own communities function.” 8toAbolition, similarly, demands that we “invest in care, not cops,” including “healthcare infrastructure . . . wellness resources, neighborhood based trauma centers, non-coercive drug and alcohol treatment programming, peer support networks, and training for healthcare professionals.”

The “root-causes” theory of crime is tenuous at best. Historically, crime rates have shown little correlation with economic trends. The Great Depression saw no increase in the crime rate, while crime rates in the prosperous 1980s were very high. The decrease in crime in the 1990s coincided with a tightening of welfare standards.

The contention that better social programs could control crime, furthermore, is unproven, to say the least. A few programs have shown some moderately positive outcomes. Low-income children who attended the Head Start preschool program have about a 14 percent lower chance of being convicted of a crime as an adult, according to a somewhat dated study. Some smaller-scale and generally more labor-intensive pilot programs such as the Perry Preschool Project have shown more promising results, though boosters tend to overrate them. Even these programs often face severe difficulties scaling up.

Police abolitionists, to be fair, have a few reasonable though hardly novel points. Many jurisdictions do overuse police officers for routine wellness checks, causing, in extreme cases, atrocities such as the shooting of Kenneth Chamberlain in White Plains. Hazardous militarized tactics such as SWAT raids are overused. And some police departments likely do have bloated budgets, overfunding programs that have little to do with public safety; police department waste should be no more sacrosanct than any other government waste.

But overall, the police-abolitionist movement gives a false impression of the United States as a country that lavishes money on cops while neglecting basic services. Given how many obvious problems their proposals leave unaddressed—for example, how to prevent “community-based models of safety” from collapsing into feuding gangs—the least that one could expect is that advocates get their basic facts right. Until they do, there’s little reason to take their arguments seriously.

Connor Harris is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute.

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