The Crisis of Police and Public Safety
Editor’s note: This is the fifth release in a new TLP series surveying major domestic and foreign policy issues facing the country. These articles will explore the basic factual context shaping each policy area, examine the major positions on offer across the ideological spectrum, and evaluate which ideas are best—or if new ideas may be needed—to help advance a common-sense perspective in American politics and policymaking.
Robert Peel, the founder of the modern police, said the principal object of police is “the prevention of crime.”1
One hundred and forty years later, sociologist Egon Bittner noted that “the salient characteristic of modern authority implementation is that it interposes distance between those who command and those who obey....police have always been forced to justify activities that did not involve law enforcement in the direct sense.”2 The function of police, according to Bittner, is the situational use of force. Police are the lawmaker’s “muscle.” What Bittner ignored, however, is the catch-all nature of modern policing.
Ultimately, police cushion the impact of objects that fall through holes in the social safety nets of family, community, and society. As H.L. Mencken observed of the olden days:
Many of the multifarious duties now carried out by social workers, statisticians, truant officers, visiting nurses, psychologists, and the vast rabble of inspectors, smellers, spies and bogus experts of a hundred different faculties either fell to the police or were not discharged at all.
Today’s debate over policing is often over such “multifarious duties:” who should perform what, when, where, and how. In the flurry of “defund the police” activism that marked 2020, abolitionist NYC City Council Member Tiffany Cabán tweeted: “The NYPD should not have a beekeeper unit. #Defund the NYPD and fully fund a civilian workforce not known for terrorizing Black and brown folks with impunity.”
In her defense, it’s hard to think of anything obviously less a police function than beekeeping. But it’s worth noting that the NYPD does not, in fact, have a “beekeeping unit.” There just happens to be a cop on the job able to handle very rare calls for swarming bees. It’s not certain that experts or social workers or “community-based” organizations handle these functions any better than police, but what is certain is that police are the 24/7 civil servants who mend what is broken and address whatever needs to be immediately addressed in a given locale.3
The voices of #defund and police abolitionists are now hopefully in decline, but overall confidence in police remains low.4 The recent decline in confidence is not due to the traditionally police-skeptical left becoming more skeptical but because the right wing has turned against traditional law enforcement, seeing it perhaps as some embodiment of the “deep state.” After nearly two centuries of modern policing, police face an ideological crisis—perhaps even an existential one. The impact of this crisis on public safety will be profound.
Let’s turn to relevant trend data, both in terms of crime in general and police use of lethal force in particular.
Issue One: Crime
Thanks to the reliability of homicide statistics, murders serve as a good proxy for crime in general. Here are long-term and recent trends in murder:
The U.S. murder rate peaked in 1980, which may come as a surprise to those who hear “it was worse in 1990”—often from certain kinds of anti-policing activists trying to downplay rising crime. For now, note the massive drop in murder in the 1990s and the second less heralded but significant drop between 2006 and 2013. Murders increased from 2014 to 2016—at the time the largest two-year increase in recorded US history—and then again more drastically in 2020 following the police murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests and riots in late-May. Compared to a similar timeframe in 2019, the first four months of 2020 saw a ten percent increase in murder. The last seven months of 2020 saw a 38 percent increase in murders over the previous year. This year and last (2022 and 2023) have seen declines in murder, but violence in the U.S. remains higher than any time since the 1990s.
Issue Two: Police Violence5
Over the long term, the number of people shot by police has declined significantly. National data is unreliable before 2014, but in 18 cities with reliable data there is a 69 percent reduction in the rate of fatal officer-involved shootings over fifty years.6 In Washington D.C., the number of people shot by cops in the past nine years is two-thirds lower than in the 1990s (during which time the city’s population increased 30 percent). In New York City, cops shot 314 (!) people in 1971 and 21 in 2021. Annual fatalities at the hands of police in NYC have declined from 93 to six. It is also worth noting that the number of cops shot in NYC dropped from 57 in 1973 to a low of six in 2018.
The reasons for these long-term declines are multifold, but the short version is that police departments started keeping track of shootings and successfully worked to reduce them through better training, policy, and tactics. That includes everything from threat perception and learning from lethal-force situations to punishing cops involved in “bad” shootings and changes in policy such as prohibiting shooting at moving vehicles and fleeing felons (much of which became Tennessee v. Garner in 1983). While pressure for reform came from outside police departments, the actual reforms themselves were generally internal.
This long term decline in police-involved shootings is indisputable, but goes counter to the narrative that “police violence” constitutes an “epidemic” that’s at an “all-time high.”7 Police use of lethal force—cops killing people—has remained surprisingly steady since the Washington Post (and a few other sources) began keeping an accurate count in 2014 after Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri.
Running tally of people shot and killed by police each year, 2014-2023
The irony is that until the 2014 inflection point, so many quantifiable measures had been improving: murders, incarceration, and police use of lethal force were all down.
The number of people cops shoot is influenced by two main variables. First, police use of force increases with the number of police-public interactions—not as a rate per interaction, but simply as a number and thus rate per population. Second, police use of lethal force increases with the rate of overall violence. Simply put, police shoot more people when people shoot more.
But the issue today isn’t really “police violence” in general but the more specific issue of white cops shooting black men. There are vast racial disparities in police use of force compared to the population at large, but police don’t deal with a random cross-section of the population. In 2021 the black homicide rate in America was 724 percent higher than the white homicide rate. In cities such as New York and Philadelphia, roughly 95 percent of shooting victims and suspects are black or Hispanic. It would be surprising, to say the least, if disparities in American gun violence were not also reflected in police deployment, tactics, and use of force. When controlling for other variables, Roland Fryer concluded that blacks are slightly less likely than whites to be killed by police (though also more likely to be victims of non-lethal force).8
I don’t wish to dismiss or ignore bad police shootings over the years, but a distorted public perception of police use of force, particularly on the political left, resembles a traditional “moral panic” that engenders a mass movement based on an exaggerated perception that some group or issue (police and police use of lethal force in this case) poses a threat to society. The public vastly over-estimates the number of unarmed black men killed by police as well as the percentage of those killed who are black. In one survey, more than half of the self-described “very liberal” respondents believed more than 1,000 unarmed black men were killed by police in a year; the actual number was less than 20.9
Reforming Reform: Change for the Better
Good policing and public safety depend on a truthful and honest narrative.10 Policing and the criminal justice system, as flawed as they can be, remain essential and good. Like clean water and electricity, policing and public safety need to be defended as a public necessity. If we concede the issue that police are “modern day slave catchers” and prison is “Slavery 3.0”—even just to get to the actual policy issue at hand—we have lost the foundational debate and quashed any hope for improved policy. Policymakers need to reinforce the notion that policing is good (no, not all policing), rooted in public safety, and a noble institution.
Progressives, and white progressives in particular, who want less policing need to be called out for the racially disparate effects of their advocacy. The impact of reduced policing has been greatest in black neighborhoods in cities that are disproportionately white. The murder rate for black residents of formerly low-murder Portland is now higher than the murder rate for blacks residents of Baltimore. How did this come to be when poll after poll shows black Americans want more policing more than white Americans?11
Next, policymakers should push for more data—and more accurate data combined with feasible benchmarks of success and accountability—and then work on propagating best practices. Instead of reform based on “don’t do this” and “don’t use that,” reform should focus on “do’s.” After unrest in 2020, many cities banned crowd-control tools such as batons and tear gas and “kettling” without offering any effective alternative crowd control tactics. Some departments, often big city departments given the most scrutiny, do better than others.
Police accountability remains a treacherous issue. It’s obviously necessary, but the devil is in the details. Before Ferguson, it was rare for a police officer to face a criminal prosecution for use of force. Increased prosecution when cops do criminal wrong is generally a good sign, but policing suffers when police fear getting in trouble for using justified force or even no use of force at all. I joke (I’m not joking) that when I was a cop in Baltimore 22 years ago, you actually had to mess up to get in trouble! No longer.
To give one example, New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board recently brought charges against an officer for a post-Floyd incident in which the officer drove away from a crowd that broke the windows of his SUV while two prisoners were inside. The officer, a black immigrant from Africa, said he was afraid the mostly white mob was going to kill him. The officer was charged for a discrepancy between a video of the incident and his testimony years later. This is in an incident in which nobody was injured and nobody filed a complaint.12
Police and prison abolitionists keep chipping away away at the criminal justice system. Some are driven by a misguided belief that the criminal justice system does more harm than good; others are full on anti-establishment revolutionaries. Often extreme reform is masked by and bundled with good reform. New York City criminalized cops putting pressure on the diaphragm in the course of an arrest under the guise of a choke-hold ban. “Discovery reform” initially gave burglars (no longer detained post-arrest because of “bail reform”) the right to enter and take a picture of the house they burgled. In Chicago police are de facto prohibited from chasing criminals in a car—or on foot. It is fair to ask, “Who wanted this and why?”
Much of the criminal justice “debate” has essentially been between an extreme and even pro-criminal left and an authoritarian and even fascist Trumpian right. There’s a fortune cookie cliché about the “crisis being an opportunity,” but in this case it might be true. The gap between the extremes is so wide that it’s difficult for reasonable people not to fall into a sensible middle ground of public safety policy.
Given the decentralized nature of American policing and the criminal justice system as a whole, specific policy recommendations depend on the jurisdiction. To paraphrase Rep. Tip O’Neill, all policing is local. What follows is more a narrative framework by which change for the better (as distinct from “reform”) can happen, rather than a set of discrete policies. That said, some policy choices are more important than others. Consider this low-hanging fruit:
Push back on the anti-policing crowd who say, “We know policing doesn’t prevent crime,” or “We can’t police our way out of this problem.” Often, we can. It’s amazing how much can be accomplished with policing.13 Similarly, people against policing often criticize racial disparity by comparing police activity to the city’s overall population. This is disingenuous at best as disparity is not the same as bias. Police activity inevitably will—and should even—reflect racial disparities in criminal offending. An honest denominator is needed.
Accountability and transparency are important (and often good for police despite some instinctual opposition). When cops do commit crimes, they should be punished departmentally or prosecuted criminally. Qualified immunity is a fair standard for police officers given the job they do. (For better or for worse prosecutors and legislators have absolute immunity.) The desire to end qualified immunity is largely a red herring rooted less in a desire for better policing and more in a desire to get at policing and police unions. Police unions can be problematic, at least politically, but there is no evidence that police behave better in non-union jurisdictions. This isn’t to say unions can’t obstruct progress, but the call to break police unions (often in order to end qualified immunity) is, once again, more about policing than police. Oversight boards should include people with police knowledge or experience (often there is an expressed prohibition). This should be common sense, but can also be defended on the constitutional standard of Graham v. Connor (1989) which said police use of force “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
Quality-of life-policing is good and needed. Contrast this with a “get tough” call for “stop and frisk” in high crime communities. The latter approach punishes the innocent for simply living in a neighborhood where they are more likely to be the victims of predatory criminals. Quality-of-life policing may prevent more serious crime (the evidence on this is not strong), but policing quality-of-life issues is still an intrinsic good to those who live in neighborhoods with quality-of-life problems.
Cops are supposed to chase robbers. The movement to end police pursuits needs to end. Police chases need to be permitted, because stopping for police shouldn’t be considered optional. But car chases also need to be discouraged because they’re dangerous.
There’s nothing wrong with detaining people post-arrest and pre-trial. Criminals are not “innocent” simply because they have not yet been convicted. There is a legal standard of “probable cause.” Dangerous people should not be released.
Don’t pass laws and then act shocked at the intended consequences. If public drug injection is legalized, more people will shoot-up in plain view. If loitering for the purpose of solicitation is legalized, prostitutes will begin street walking again. If you say you won’t prosecute shoplifting, there will be more shoplifting. Laws, like elections, have consequences. That’s why we pass laws. They matter.
Violence interrupters and all the alternatives to policing are great...except they never seem to work. Some may have corollary benefits, but not in terms of violence prevention. The few violence interrupter programs that have shown some signs of success all include lines of communication with police. These lines of communication go against the founding principles of the violence interrupter model; this foundational belief is wrong as it works against the concept of police legitimacy.
Go after repeat violent offenders. The best way to go after repeat violent offenders is though the enforcement of existing gun laws. The focus of all parts of the criminal justice system—police, prosecution, incarceration—needs to be on repeat violent offenders. Today the far left (e.g.: the Bronx public defenders and Philadelphia’s district attorney) has aligned with the far right (the NRA) to oppose the enforcement of laws against illegal gun possession. This is a dangerous political alignment. Let’s enforce existing gun laws.
In the 1990s, New York City demonstrated that violence could be greatly reduced without improving underlying social conditions (or changing the Second Amendment). Enforcement of existing gun control laws—locking up those who carry illegal guns—is probably the single most significant and realistic measure that can be taken to reduce violence. In essence, the political left has conceded lower-case “law and order” to the MAGA right. If the left gives up on enforcing gun laws, we’re doomed. The streets can be de-escalated. We need to go after those who carry illegal guns.
It wasn’t that long ago that Democrats passed a national anti-crime bill that banned assault rifles, hired more cops, and funded more prisons and social programs. I don’t know how much credit one should give to President Clinton’s (and Senator Biden’s) 1994 Crime Bill (it did probably help, but not to a huge extent), but it did correlate with a massive reduction in violence nationwide. Today, though, the mainstream left views the bill as evil for allegedly causing mass incarceration—a phenomenon that largely preceded the bill’s passage.
Since 2015, the police reform agenda has been largely set and driven by anti-policing abolitionists. This is not to say all those who support “reform” are anti-police, but those who believe policing as an institution is inherently racist are often the most passionate and shout the loudest. Countering this narrative remains key because there are a lot of abolitionist wolves in the sheep’s clothing of police reform.14
In terms of crime prevention, any specific reform bill should be judged on its impact on repeat offenders and gun violence. Most everything else can be debated by people of good faith and needn't necessarily fall on an ideological spectrum. My litmus test as to whether any specific policing or criminal justice change is good is this: is the goal less policing or better policing (or prosecution or incarceration)? If reform is imposed by those who want to abolish our criminal justice system, it’s probably bad. Good change needs to actually involve those who work in the system.
A centrist position should start from the premise that policing is generally good and criminals generally are not. Focus on that and everything else can conceivably fall into place.
Peter Moskos is a professor in the Department of Law, Police Science, and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the director of John Jay’s NYPD Executive Master’s Leadership Program and a former Baltimore City Police Officer.
1 Instructions to Police Officers. (1829). “Sanction of Establishment of Police. No 8 Augmentation.” London: Home Office.
2 Bittner, E. (1970). p 18, p 69. “The Functions of the Police in Modern Society.” National Institute of Mental Health, Crime and Delinquency Issues Series. Rockville, MD: Center for Studies of Crime and Delinquency.
3 Huey, L., and Johnston, S. (2023). "Unf@cking People’s Problems: A Theory of Policing." Sociology Publications. 57. https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/sociologypub/57
4 American confidence in police as an institution has declined from 55% to 43%, but remains higher than any other institution except the military and small businesses. https://www.langerresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/1228a1PolicePractices.pdf
5 I generally avoid using the term “police violence” because its purpose is to have a negative connotation. But its use in not limited to misuses of police force but all police use of force. Bittner would object.
8 Fryer, R. G. Jr. (2019). “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force.” Journal of Political Economy. Vol. 127(3).
9 McCaffree, K. & Saide, A. (2021). “How Informed are Americans about Race and Policing?” Skeptic Research Center, CUPES-007. https://www.skeptic.com/research-center/reports/Research-Report-CUPES-007.pdf. Interestingly, those with higher levels of education and those with (correlated) greater trust in the news media were more misinformed. McCaffree, K. & Saide, A. (2021). “Why Are People Misinformed About Fatal Police Shootings?” Skeptic Research Center, CUPES- 008. https://www.skeptic.com/research-center/reports/Research-Report-CUPES-008.pdf
10 Arguably the present police reform movement was founded on a lie: Michael Brown’s hands were not up when he was shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. Capehart, J. (2015) “‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ was built on a lie.” Washington Post. March 16.
12 Tracy, Thomas. 2023. “NYPD detective who drove through George Floyd protesters yells at CCRB prosecutor.” New York Daily News. October 1, 2023. https://www.nydailynews.com/2023/10/01/nypd-detective-who-drove-through-george-floyd-protesters-yells-at-ccrb-prosecutor/
13 For a list of studies see: https://qualitypolicing.com/a-list-of-police-centered-and-police-related-crime-reduction-studies/
14 It may be noteworthy that as I write this BLM and DSA abolitionists seem to be self-destructing in the wake of their apparent support for Hamas terrorists. Leaving aside the current international crisis, this bodes well for policing and public safety.