Downplaying Crime Is a Disaster for Progressives

Posted by on July 27, 2021 7:00 am
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In early April, Mahmood Ansari was working at his souvenir store in Atlantic City, New Jersey, when a pair of minors, one armed with a knife, robbed him. After a brief altercation, he collapsed. He was rushed to a hospital, where he was soon pronounced dead.

After Ansari’s death, I spoke with Rizwan Malik, one of his friends. Malik said that he and other business owners had unsuccessfully begged the city for additional police protection in the weeks leading up to the incident, in response to a spate of robberies. “If they were doing something about it, [Ansari] would maybe be alive,” Malik told me. (The police department has said that it was “aware of concerns and complaints” from the merchants, and that it will coordinate with them over the summer to tackle crime.)

I thought about Ansari’s death when I saw recent remarks by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York in which she appeared to downplay America’s recent surge in violent crime.

“We are seeing these headlines about percentage increases,” she said during a virtual event with Representative Jamaal Bowman, a fellow New York Democrat. “Now, I want to say that any amount of harm is unacceptable and too much, but I also want to make sure that this hysteria, you know, that this doesn’t drive a hysteria, and that we look at these numbers in context so that we can make responsible decisions about what to allocate in that context.”

Rising anxiety about crime will fuel support for policies that Ocasio-Cortez is opposed to. Many on the left feel understandably outraged about police abuses, and worry that using policing as a tool to combat crime will only harm people in the most vulnerable communities. But if progressives pay close attention to people in those high-crime communities, they’ll discover that residents generally want both police reform to prevent abuses and more effective policing to tackle crime.

[Graeme Wood: After 11 minutes in America, I got hit by the crime wave]

One progressive who promotes that message is former Georgia State Senator Vincent Fort, who spent decades working on gun-violence issues in Atlanta, where homicides are up nearly 60 percent over the past year.

Fort primarily blames underlying socioeconomic factors for crime in the city, but he also thinks that an ever-expanding network of gangs and easy access to guns are fueling the violence. He senses little contradiction between tackling crime and promoting police reform. “I’ve been in courtrooms … not just fighting, you know, against over-policing, but I’ve been in the courtrooms sitting with the victims of violent crime,” he told me. “I’m equally comfortable standing with the victims of gun violence.”

The past year in particular has seen extraordinary bloodshed—“the largest increase in violence we’ve seen since 1960, when we started collecting formal crime statistics,” according to John Roman, a crime analyst at the University of Chicago.

In the minds of many progressives, acknowledging cases like Ansari’s and the demand by those who are most at risk for policing to combat crime would only offer ammunition to conservatives and other supporters of the carceral state. John Pfaff, a prominent progressive criminologist, recently argued that “those who favor the status quo are trying to use the rise in homicides as grist for rolling back policies they dislike.”

Progressive politicians who do want to address this rise in violence sometimes worry about their ideological credentials being called into question if they embrace additional policing. “I think it’s a litmus test. You can’t talk about policing, otherwise you’re considered, I guess, nonprogressive,” says Sal Albanese, who formerly represented parts of southern Brooklyn in the New York City Council and is now the Democratic nominee for a district on Staten Island.

I understand the impulse to downplay crime and the need for policing. I’ve been involved in progressive politics since I was a teenager, and I’ve always leaned left on criminal-justice issues. Some years back, I reported a lengthy story about how police had apparently racially profiled a county commissioner in my state; more recently, I worked on a campaign to elect a progressive prosecutor in Northern Virginia. I abhor the death penalty, and if I had my way, our prisons would all operate like Norway’s, with their emphasis on rehabilitation.   

Some nonpolice interventions, such as youth summer-jobs programs that can help keep kids out of gangs, are worth supporting. But police are still a vital component of any anti-crime response.

That reality began to dawn on me when I went on a reporting trip to Baltimore in 2018. The city had been experiencing a massive surge in homicides, going from 211 murders in 2014 to 342 murders in 2015. This elevated rate has persisted in the years since, settling in as a sort of new normal.

Explanations from the left for this surge in violence are unsatisfying. Baltimore did not grow significantly poorer or more segregated in 2015, and hasn’t in the years since.

The turning point may have been the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old who died in police custody in April 2015. This set off large-scale protests and riots that drew national media attention and eventually changed the nature of policing in the city. For example, police dramatically reduced their proactive policing, with one estimate concluding that arrests were cut almost by half from 2014 to 2017. By November 2017, gun arrests were down 67 percent from the previous year, despite no meaningful decrease in gun crime (a situation made worse by the fact that the city’s Gun Trace Task Force was hideously corrupt and disbanded). As the Reverend Kinji Scott, a Baltimore pastor who lost family members to homicide in other cities, told me, “We saw the police department arrest less during a period of high crime. So what happened is you have a community of emboldened criminals.”

[David Graham: Biden doesn’t have an answer to America’s crime spike]

Baltimore isn’t the only place where this de-policing occurred alongside a large increase in violence. Research by the Harvard economist Roland Fryer found that when cities encounter both a viral incident of police use of force and a federal or state investigation, homicides tend to rise as police start making fewer stops.

One possible explanation for the past year’s surge of violence would be that we’re seeing a sort of national version of what happened in Baltimore. The political climate may have made police reluctant or averse to doing their job, resulting in an under-policing of crime that could be associated with the increase in shootings and homicides. Recent research by the University of Utah’s Paul Cassell suggests that decreased policing in some cities last summer was associated with a spike in murders.

Many on the left may be quick to counter that I’m ignoring the pandemic. Couldn’t the upheaval brought about by the coronavirus pandemic have driven people to commit depraved acts of violence, as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio seemed to argue when he suggested that the uptick was “clearly related, in part, to the coronavirus and to the fact that people are cooped up”? But that theory fails to explain why other countries didn’t see similar increases in murders. The homicide rate in Canada barely budged last year (although Canada is not nearly as armed as we are). Homicides in Mexico actually declined (albeit minimally), and El Salvador, which is typically the most unsafe country outside of a war zone in the world, saw its lowest homicide rate in more than 20 years. (The stay-at-home orders in particular may have helped curb crime globally.)

I’m sure that many progressives don’t buy the argument that quality policing is essential to controlling violent crime, but many voters do. The recent Democratic primaries in New York City provide an example of how progressives, when they are unable to address the public’s concerns about crime, will pay for it at the ballot box. Although the left found some success down the ballot, capturing the Democratic nomination for comptroller and a number of city-council spots, progressives found themselves overwhelmed in the mayoral race.

Candidates such as Dianne Morales, Scott Stringer, and Maya Wiley, who de-emphasized the role of policing and campaigned on reducing police spending, finished behind moderates such as Kathryn Garcia and the former New York Police Department officer and eventual winner Eric Adams, who promised to beef up the city’s police forces. Although his victory probably can’t be chalked up to one factor alone, polling showed that crime was a major issue for voters. One survey found that 46 percent of likely voters said crime or violence is a “main problem” in New York today. Almost three-quarters of voters said in the same poll that the NYPD should put more officers on the street.

Fort, the former Georgia state senator, insisted to me that addressing crime is both a strategic and moral imperative for progressives.

“Progressives have to be full-throated and have to be very … outspoken on these issues,” he said. “We cannot allow the right wing, the police unions, and others to intimidate us into being either quiet on this issue or not pushing on the policy changes that are needed.”

Many progressives don’t seem to share that view, and are quick to downplay what’s happening in the United States today. A reported piece in The Guardian warns that “police and politicians routinely share misleading, out-of-context crime statistics to advance their agendas,” while telling the reader that “Americans overall are much less likely to be killed today than they were in the 1990s.”

This may be true, but it’s just as true that violent crime is a real crisis in certain places—harming certain communities—right now. Violent crime is not equally distributed across the United States. It’s not even equally distributed across the average city. In New York City, 96 percent of shooting victims last year were Black or Hispanic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, polling conducted in June found that the New Yorkers who lived in the Bronx, which is predominantly Black and Latino, were significantly more likely than Manhattanites, who are majority white, to believe that the number of uniformed cops in the subways should be increased (81 percent among those in the Bronx, compared with 62 percent of those in Manhattan). One-third of white New Yorkers disapproved of increasing police in the subways; 14 percent of Black residents disapproved.

Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer who today teaches criminal justice at John Jay College, in New York City, worries that many of the city’s anti-police progressives live in safe, upper-middle-class neighborhoods that will never have to experience the consequences of serious crime surges. “Stop telling other people how they should be policed,” he told me, “especially when the data we do have says that Blacks want more policing more than whites want more policing.”

[Read: What caused the great crime decline in the U.S.?]

It shouldn’t be surprising to us that people who live in the most violent environments in America value the role that policing can play in making their community safer to live in.

Steve Bellow spent 40 years working in and among law enforcement. He is also the son of Black parents who grew up in the South under Jim Crow. They raised him in South Central Los Angeles during the 1960s, a period in which California saw a significant increase in violence.

Bellow is outraged by what he sees as widespread anti-police sentiment that doesn’t take into account why high-risk communities demand the presence of police in the first place.

“I get so infuriated when I read something saying Black people wake up every day worrying about the police, or it’s going to cause more harm than good if the police are involved,” he told me, recounting the way that street violence impacted his childhood. “I come from a relatively large family—two brothers, three sisters. Your young sisters couldn’t walk outside out of fear. It wasn’t fear of the police. In fact, you were hoping for a police car to come by every once in a while.”

Even if the levels of violence return to pre-2020 levels, that would hardly be an accomplishment.

Chicago recorded 650 murders in 2017. Japan, which has 46 times as many people, had 307 homicides the same year. We’ve simply come to accept a level of violence in this country that much of the rest of the world—from poor, developing countries such as Vietnam to wealthy nations such as the United Kingdom—can’t even imagine. Ignoring that level of human suffering is hardly progressive, and it isn’t hysterical to say so.

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