The Democratic Position on Crime Is a (Political) Crime
There is a better way.
As we head into the 2024 election, Biden’s chief liability is clearly voter dissatisfaction with the economy, which triumphalist talk about “Bidenomics” has done little to allay. However, there are other serious weaknesses he will have to overcome. One obvious one is immigration and the border where voters’ assessment of his administration’s performance is particularly dire. But we shouldn’t forget about crime and public safety, where Democrats’ image is scarcely better.
Gallup has just released a tranche of data on the crime issue which highlight the potential salience of the issue in 2024. Key findings include the following:
Sixty-three percent of the public now say the crime problem in the nation is extremely or very serious. This is the highest reading on this question since Gallup starting tracking it in 2000.
Over three-quarters (77 percent) say there’s more crime in the country today than there was a year ago. Along with similar results from their 2022 and 2020 surveys, these views on rising crime are the highest since 1993 in the Gallup’s series.
In terms of crime in respondents’ local areas, 55 percent say there’s more crime today than a year ago. Along with a similar reading from last year, these are the highest levels every measured by Gallup on this question going back to the beginning of their time series in 1972.
Over a quarter (28 percent) say their household has been victimized by at least one of these crimes in the past year: having a home broken into, having property vandalized, having money or property stolen, having money or property stolen by force, having a car stolen, being physically assaulted or being sexually assaulted. Except for 2016, this is the highest level reported by the public since Gallup initiated this time series in 2000.
Forty percent now say within a mile of their home there is an area where they would be afraid to walk alone at night. This is the highest level Gallup has measured since the crime-ridden early 1990’s.
Along with levels measured last year, Americans are more worried about the crimes of having their car stolen or broken into, being attacked while driving your car, getting mugged, and getting murdered than they have been since 2000 when Gallup started measuring these fears.
As for illegal drugs, for the first time since 1972, when Gallup first asked about this question, more than half (52 percent) think the U.S. is losing ground on the illegal drug problem. Just 24 percent believe the U.S. is making progress, 28 points less than those who feel we’re losing ground—the largest gap ever measured.
In light of the trends above, it is not surprising that negative views of the criminal justice system have gone up. Views that the justice system is “not tough enough” have spiked, rising 17 points since 2020 to 58 percent of the public, the highest level since the early 2000’s.
Consistent with these pessimistic views, voters are not happy with the job the Democrats have been doing on crime. In a September NBC poll, voters favored Republican over Democrats by 26 points on dealing with crime. Biden is consistently way underwater on his job approval in the crime area, averaging 21 points more disapproval than approval on the issue.
Even more pertinent to the coming election, Democracy Corps has a new survey out of 2500 voters in next year’s battleground states and congressional districts. In this survey, inflation and the cost of living is tabbed by voters as the most pressing issue for the country by a considerable margin. But the second most cited is “crime, homelessness, and violence”. This pattern holds for black, Hispanic, and Asian voters and for moderate Democrats and political independents.
In the same survey, battleground voters favor Trump and the Republicans over Biden and the Democrats by 12 points on “feeling safe” and by 17 points on “handling crime”. The survey also asked these voters what they would worry about the most if Biden wins the election. Topping the list was “the border being wide open to millions of impoverished immigrants, many are criminals and drug dealers who are overwhelming America's cities.” But a very close second—just a point behind—was “crime and homelessness being out of control in cities and the violence killing small businesses and the police”. Among black, Hispanic and Asian voters as well as among white Millennials, moderate Democrats and political independents, crime and homelessness worries actually topped the list.
It is not hard to think of reasons voters feel this way. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the nationwide movement sparked by it, the climate for police reform was highly favorable. But Democrats blew the opportunity by allowing the party to be associated with unpopular movement slogans like “defund the police” that did not appear to take public safety concerns very seriously.
At the same time, Democrats became associated with a wave of progressive public prosecutors who seemed quite hesitant about keeping criminals off the street, even as a spike in violent crimes like murders and carjacking swept the nation. This was twinned to a climate of tolerance and non-prosecution for lesser crimes that degraded the quality of life in many cities under Democratic control. San Francisco became practically a poster child for the latter problem under DA Chesa Boudin’s “leadership.”
So the voters kicked him out in a recall election. Based on the neighborhood pattern of voting and pre-election polling data, it seems clear that Asian voter support for the recall was particularly strong.
Nonwhite support for cashiering Boudin shouldn’t be surprising. The most enthusiastic supporters of a Boudin-style approach to policing tend to be white college-educated liberals. Nonwhite and working-class voters approach the issue of crime quite differently. Think of Eric Adams’ support in his successful run for the New York mayoralty, or of Cherelle Parker’s support in her recent successful run to be Philadelphia’s mayor.
Adams wasn’t afraid to put public safety front and center in his political appeals and called out affluent professionals who think nonwhite and working class communities can do with less policing. He believed that this was what his constituencies wanted.
He wasn’t wrong about that, as suggested by his very strong working-class and nonwhite support in the New York City mayoral primary. Indeed, these sentiments are dominant in urban areas all over the country. In heavily black Detroit, a USA Today/Suffolk University/Detroit Free Press poll found:
Amid a jump in violent crime in this and other cities nationwide, Detroit residents report being much more worried about public safety than about police misconduct… By an overwhelming 9-1, they would feel safer with more cops on the street, not fewer.
Or consider what happened in Minneapolis, where George Floyd’s murder took place. Here the closest thing to defunding the police actually got on the ballot (Question 2)… and was soundly defeated, especially by black working-class voters.
These sentiments in pro-Democratic nonwhite and working-class urban areas should not be puzzling. These voters tend to live in areas that have more crime and are therefore unlikely to look kindly on any approach that threatens public safety. A Pew poll found that black and Hispanic Democrats—who are far more urban and working class—are significantly more likely than white Democrats to favor more police funding in their area.
Not that Democrats never mention crime. Biden did mention it in his State of the Union speech this year but it was in the context of providing more “resources” and “investments” which will allegedly “prevent violence in the first place”. The police were mentioned but mostly in the context of police reform. The latter is a worthy cause but conspicuously missing was any mention of what normie voters want the most: getting violent criminals off the street and into jail. Indeed, the only mention of prosecuting criminals was about “prosecuting criminals who stole relief money meant to keep workers and small businesses afloat.” Great idea, but, um, what about the violent criminals who make everyday life miserable in working-class communities throughout the country, especially in black and Latino areas?
It is not hard to discern the continuing influence of current Democratic Party orthodoxy, which views a strong law and order approach as essentially racist and seems way more interested in making it harder to arrest, jail, and prosecute criminals. Voters have pushed back against this orthodoxy in cities from San Francisco to Minneapolis to New York but the national Democratic Party appears terrified to break with the activist groups and liberal elites who push “criminal justice reform” above all else.
In short, Democrats still seem very far from former UK prime minister Tony Blair’s felicitous slogan: “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. Conservative outlets like Fox News may exaggerate but voters really do want law and order—done fairly and humanely, but law and order just the same. Democrats—with some exceptions like Adams and Parker—still seem reluctant to highlight their commitment to cracking down on crime and criminals because that is something that, well, Fox News would say.
There is a better way. Criminologist Peter Moskos has provided a sketch of key steps to take in a terrific essay published on (where else?) The Liberal Patriot:
1. 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. 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.
2. 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.”
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
Words of wisdom. And here’s a final word from Moskos that all Democrats should take to heart:
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.
Yes, there is a better way.