When it comes to health care and education, Americans spend as much or more than nearly every other country. The outcomes don’t always justify the massive investment.
Yet we seem to understand, at some level, that spending less isn’t the answer. Wholesale cuts to education or health care would make things worse, not better. The issue is spending your money smarter, so that it accomplishes the most good.
So why don’t we think the same way about policing? The death of George Floyd, plus other high-profile shootings at the hands of law enforcement officers, sparked intense public scrutiny and calls to defund the police in some areas. The same question must be asked: How would less money for policing make things better?
In a recent City Link newsletter, a St. Joseph police officer puts some interesting context to the problem.
According to Bureau of Justice statistics, police nationwide make direct contact with the public about 75 million times a year. Given the frequency of contact, and the fact that the U.S. population is the most heavily armed in the world, things go wrong.
About 60% of people shot by police are armed with a gun, but the focus of the current debate centers on those who were not armed at all. In 2019, that number was 203 at a national level. Of that number, 84 were white, 43 were Black, 36 were Hispanic and information was not available on the remaining cases. That breaks down to 4.6 unarmed police shootings per million contacts for blacks, 3.7 for Hispanics and 1.6 for whites.
“These occur at a rate of less than one in a million overall police-community interactions,” the police officer, who remains anonymous, wrote. “A majority of police officers would support a goal of zero unnecessary police shootings. But, we know it is probably unrealistic as well. It is clearly important to minimize this number, but with 75 million interactions between armed police and heavily armed citizenry, bad events are going to happen.”
So what’s the answer? Certain interactions with the public might be best handled by a social worker or mental health professional, but are you going to call for a counselor if the neighbors are fighting in the middle of the night? A reduced police presence could make some high-crime communities less rather than more safe. The article notes that some de-escalation policies can prolong an incident and inadvertently allow it to escalate.
There are no easy answers, but this article clearly shows that evidence-based solutions are more important than breezy statements to defund, de-escalate and call it good. We suspect the people demanding that haven’t worked many midnight shifts in a police cruiser, but the author of this article probably has lots of that experience under his belt.