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America’s experiment with mass incarceration has been such a clear and profound disaster that even conservatives have come around to the idea that it must end. Not everyone cares that it was a racist atrocity, but all corners of the political spectrum have been forced to admit that it is a staggering, unsustainable waste of resources that doesn’t work. Accepting this reality, it is perfectly rational — unremarkable, even — to shift resources from our armed police forces and into social services and other areas that address the root causes of crime. The failure of mass incarceration as a viable public safety strategy is quickly reaching conventional wisdom status, so it would be irrational not to execute a shift in policing as well.
This utterly pedestrian idea — that armed police officers are not the optimal enforcement method for everything from traffic stops to school safety to mental health crises, and that some of what we spend on police could be shifted into programs that better address those areas, in order to produce better results for the public — is the essence of the call to “defund the police.” It is about the sort of measured shift in funding priorities that governments at all levels do every single year. No matter where anyone stands on the merit of defunding the police, the nature of it is a thoroughly common sense debate over the wisest allocation of public resources. When crime rates have plummeted for decades and we face a national crisis of millions of people whose lives have been destroyed by being imprisoned, all while social services remain inadequate to meet demand even as police funding has steadily risen, any honest technocrat can see that reallocating money from police to other areas should be an obvious move.
I say all this not to relaunch the incessant debate on defunding the police, but rather to point out that the quality of the debate we are having on this issue is absolute trash. This is not really because of Fox News and Republicans, who can be expected to mischaracterize the entire thing and turn it into a wild smear, but instead because of the mainstream political media, which has completely acquiesced to using a crude caricature of “defund the police” as its go-to version. This happens because the political media exists not to cover the substance of issues, but to cover politics as sports. At its core, our mass media is able only to talk about which side is winning in the political arena. The actual wisdom of policy choices is considered a second-order question that is not the business of the media to answer. The smear version of the real issue, therefore, has more utility to the political media than the more honest version, because the smear version is what is being wielded in the political fight.
One year after the biggest protest movement in American history demanded police reform, we now find ourselves in the ludicrous position of being told by all of the shallowest professional political savants that defunding the police is a toxic position that is poison to Democrats. From Axios to Thomas Friedman, almost the entire centrist pundit class has coalesced around the analysis that because crime rates rose during the pandemic year, defunding the police is a bad idea, electorally speaking. Do they attempt to engage with the fact that crime rates rose in cities across the nation that have not actually defunded the police? No. Do they attempt to engage with the question of whether cities’ enormous spending on police relative to other civic priorities is justified by the results? No. Those are policy choices with profound consequences on human lives, and would probably require a lot of research, and are therefore not something that Tom Friedman or Axios would ever bother with. The pundit all-stars are interested only in the question of whether the misleading, kindergarten-level connection between the mere words “defund the police” and the fearmongering crime propaganda being featured constantly on Fox News will translate into a political liability for Democrats. By focusing exclusively on this frame, they facilitate it becoming a reality.
The general public does not in any sense have a statistically meaningful understanding of crime rates. They have an understanding of crime only as A) what happens to them in their own personal lives, and B) what they see about crime in the media. The way the pseudo-smart set of political pundits talk about these issues matters because it rapidly hardens into mainstream conventional wisdom, which is incredibly hard to dislodge, no matter the number of investigative stories showing a different reality. A bunch of lurid crimes blasted on TV news combined with the elevator pitch of “police stop crime so defunding the police is awful now” is much easier to process than the complex reality of what actually creates crime, and how to mitigate its underlying causes. (I am no criminologist, but Occam’s razor tells me that the 2020 increase in violent crime was probably driven by a physically and economically devastating global pandemic rather than a defunding of the police that did not actually happen. But hey, who knows.) The willingness of all the political analysts to completely gloss over the substance of the police reform debate while leaning into the cheap, dishonest attack ad version of it is exactly the sort of epistemologically corrupt choice that these people make all the time in order to preserve the veneer of being analytical observers standing outside of the partisan fray.
What causes violent crime in our communities? What effect do police budgets have on crime? What is the price of having more police — in money, but also in the human toll on those who are police targets? What are the hidden opportunity costs of municipal money spent on police forces rather than on social programs? Are there other programs or trained professionals we could allocate resources to that would produce better, healthier outcomes than the same amount of resources dedicated to police? These are the honest terms of the debate on defunding the police. If they do not bear any resemblance to the questions being discussed by the pundits who ostensibly talk about politics, it is because their definition of politics does not include caring about being honest.
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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.