by Jon Guze
Senior Fellow, Legal Studies, John Locke Foundation
Thanks to a series of egregious policy blunders, crime has once again become a pressing issue in the United States. The pillaging of high-end retailers following the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse and the Christmas parade massacre in Waukesha have focused attention on two types of blunder: public announcements that shoplifting and other minor crimes would not be prosecuted, and failures to detain arrestees with extensive criminal histories who went on to commit terrible crimes.
The biggest policy blunder of all, however, was the irresponsible way many politicians and law enforcement officials responded to the hundreds of violent antipolice protests that broke out after the death of George Floyd. They should have condemned those violent protests and taken immediate steps to shut them down with a decisive show of force. Instead — aided and abetted by large numbers of journalists, academics, and “activists” — they downplayed the violence, provided moral and in some cases material support for the rioters, and added their voices to the general vilification of the police and to the calls to “defund” them.
The predictable result of this dereliction was a precipitous spike in violent crime, especially homicides. According to the FBI, almost 18,000 Americans were murdered in 2020, an increase of almost 30% over 2019, the highest year-over-year increase ever recorded. Of those victims, 10,000 were Black, which is well over half. Violent crime in general was also up in 2020, and as with homicides, a disproportionate percentage of the victims of those crimes were also Black. It appears, moreover, that the rates of homicides and other violent crimes have continued to climb this year with the result that some cities are likely to end up with homicide rates that exceed the records set in the 1990s.
The current spike in homicides and other crimes has been a personal catastrophe for the victims and their families, but that is not the whole story. Those excess crimes coming on top of the riots that preceded them have undoubtedly harmed all of the residents of the neighborhoods in which they occurred by diminishing their quality of life, by depressing property values, and by discouraging investment and job creation. And all of these burdens have fallen primarily on Black Americans and the poor.
The public will not accept this situation for long, and the politicians know it. Republicans will naturally make the most of the crisis by making public safety an issue going forward, but even extremely left-leaning Democrats are beginning to regret their previous antipolice rhetoric and look for ways to reassure voters that they will do something to reduce the rate of violent crime and restore public order.
This is all to the good. Unless something is done quickly to bring it under control, the current spike in crime and disorder will lead to the loss of thousands of additional Black lives and keep millions of people trapped in poverty.
Nevertheless, it’s important that we don’t make the same mistakes we made during the last great crime wave, when we focused too much attention and too many resources on catching, convicting, and punishing the perpetrators of crimes after those crimes had been committed — and too little on preventing crimes from being committed in the first place.
It is time for a new approach to crime control, one that focuses on deterrence rather than punishment. My recent John Locke Foundation policy report advocates an approach that does precisely that. The report, “Keeping the Peace: How Intensive Community Policing Can Save Black Lives and Help Break the Cycle of Poverty,” cites dozens of studies showing that police presence deters crime and that the benefits that accrue from increased police presence greatly exceed the costs. It also provides a great deal of historical information about crime and crime deterrence in America. And it concludes with an urgent recommendation:
If we want to save Black lives and help poor people escape from poverty, and if we want to ensure that the current spike in violent crime does not spiral out of control, we must stop vilifying the police and calling for cuts in police funding. These things make matters worse for everyone, especially Blacks and the poor. Instead, we should:
- Hire more police officers
- Pay them higher salaries
- Provide them with state-of-the-art training and support
- Deploy them as “peacekeepers” in communities that suffer high levels of crime and disorder
In an effort to inform more people about the benefits of this approach to law enforcement, we will be publishing excerpts from the report as standalone Research Briefs in the coming weeks. The approach we advocate — intensive community policing — ought to have wide, bipartisan appeal for one very simple reason. Compared with catching and punishing offenders after they commit crimes, it is clearly better for everyone if potential offenders can be deterred from committing crimes in the first place.
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