If most Democrats truly believe the proper response to the George Floyd case — and that of others killed during interactions with law enforcement — is to “defund the police,” they are dangerously out of touch with reality.
The vast majority of North Carolinians, like their counterparts around the country, were sickened and upset by the death of George Floyd. They’ll support reasonable steps to enhance police procedures and training. They’ll support efforts to hold police departments and their employees accountable for egregious errors. In a recent national poll, for example, some three-quarters of respondents support reforms that make it easier for “victims of police misconduct to sue police departments for damages.”
But defund the police? The public will never support such an absurd proposal.
Now, I know many who say they support “defunding the police” don’t actually mean it. They don’t mean getting rid of taxpayer-funded police and sheriff departments altogether. They know that government’s most-important role, its primary reason for existence, is to use physical force to protect the lives, liberties, and property of its citizens. Trying to replace law-enforcement officers with some motley crew of aging hippies, unemployed grad students, unarmed social workers, and armed hooligans is a formula for fiasco, or for Seattle, but I repeat myself.
Even if we try to understand the idea conceptually, not literally, though, it’s still foolish and unpopular. When ABC/Ipsos asked a nationwide polling sample if they favored the movement to “defund the police,” 64% of respondents said no. Then the respondents were asked, more specifically, about “reducing the budget of the police department in your community, even if that means fewer police officers, if the money is shifted to programs related to mental health, housing, and education?” Opposition fell, yes, but to 60%, with 39% in support.
Most people seem to intuit what my John Locke Foundation colleague Jon Guze recently described with empirical evidence: fewer cops on the street will likely produce more crime and disorder. It will impoverish and immiserate people, particularly those who reside in lower-income communities where crime rates tend to be higher.
This observation is hardly inconsistent with support for criminal-justice reform. Indeed, Guze points to fascinating evidence suggesting there is a tradeoff between police presence and imprisonment. The United States has 154% more correction officers than the international average but 35% fewer police officers. While American states and European countries are roughly comparable when it comes to overall spending on public safety, the money is distributed quite differently: Europeans spend more at the “front end,” on police and other law enforcement, while American spend more at the “back end,” on punishment.
When police officers are present in sufficient numbers, with sufficient training and resources, to do their job effectively, the result isn’t just to deter immediate threats to lives and property. It also enhances the growth and vitality of our communities.
Some years ago, I compiled every peer-reviewed study of how state and local policies affect economic growth. Most of the studies showed that government was a net drag, not a net boost — in other words, the taxes required to fund public programs had a higher economic cost than any economic benefits those programs conferred.
No, these findings didn’t suggest we should abolish the government! What they suggested was that, on the aggregate, government expenditures had grown to a counterproductive level. Many public services confer value. But after a certain point, additional dollars spent don’t produce comparable gains in public benefits.
There was an exception to the rule, however: public safety. While there weren’t as many studies examining police and fire protection as there were examining other government functions, most of the published research concluded that states and localities would actually see their economies grow faster if they spend more on public safety.
The same ABC/Ipsos poll that showed general public opposition to “defunding the police” found a small majority of Democrats in favor of it. If Democratic candidates follow their base on this, they’ll pay an electoral price.
John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.
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