Debate | Should We Rethink the Police?

By | Nov 16, 2020
Should we rethink or defund the police?


David Weisburd is Distinguished Professor of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University and Walter E. Meyer Professor of Law and Criminal Justice at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He chaired the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Proactive Policing.

Barry Friedman serves as faculty director of the Policing Project at New York University Law School, where he is the Jacob D. Fuchsberg Professor of Law and affiliated professor of politics.


Should We Rethink the Police? | Yes, But…

Should we rethink the police?

Yes, but the more difficult question is, what kind of changes do we want? The police and science have made great strides in preventing crime. Thirty years ago, we thought the police couldn’t do anything about crime. Now we know a lot about how they can—for instance, that “hot spots” policing reduces crime. Crime in most cities is very heavily concentrated—1 percent of streets in larger cities produce about 25 percent of their crime. More than 70 good studies today show that if you focus police on these hot spots, crime will go down there and in neighboring areas. But crime is not the only issue. The police also need public support. Policing is an intrusion on public liberty, one that we allow in return for its benefits. When they go to those hot spots, police need the assent of the public. They’re not an invading army. The police haven’t thought as much about those kinds of problems. To be clear, we hire the police not so that we’ll like them, but to do jobs we need done—like controlling crime. Police departments have mistakenly thought if they did that, public support would come. But it doesn’t work that way. They need to spend just as much effort gaining legitimacy.

What changes would help?

The federal government needs to create some procedures and uniformity. The law doesn’t give us the guidance we need: Policing can be “lawful but awful.” We also need to work on training. There’s a discussion in the Talmud tractate Sanhedrin of how you get witnesses in a capital punishment case to understand the seriousness of what they’re saying. It says, “Tell them that to save a single life is to save an entire world, and to take a single life is to destroy an entire world.” When it comes to lethal force and I say this with tremendous respect for police, since I work with a lot of very positive innovators this idea from the Talmud would be a good one to reinforce. We need to slow down the rush to use guns and help the police understand the value of each human life.

Is defunding the police a solution?

Just defunding, as a program, strikes me as not very helpful. It’s hard to make good public policy when people are so upset. A lot of police funds are spent getting the police to your house in an emergency; you don’t want to wait hours instead of minutes. Are there things we don’t want the police doing, like dealing with the homeless or the mentally ill? Probably. We could move some of those tasks to others. But one reason they have fallen to the police is that cities won’t spend the money needed to deal with those problems.

Are the police a racist institution?

It’s difficult to draw conclusions from individual events, no matter how horrible. There are 16,000 police departments in America, some terrible, some quite good. America has very significant problems in the area of race, and policing may reflect that. But showing it with data is different.

We hire the police not so that we’ll like them, but to do jobs we need done

In some cases, bias is clear, as with New York City’s Stop-Question-Frisk (SQF) policy. Outside SQF, I’m not sure the evidence is there. One thing is clear: The inability to deal with officers who get in trouble over and over again, but can’t be fired, exacerbates these problems and is a direct result of police unions’ power in some cities. How much current activism is a backlash to the more aggressive strategies of the last two decades? Not necessarily to proactive policing overall, but to the way some specific approaches have been used. Proactive policing is about a lot of things, and SQF is one of the least effective when used broadly across a city. New York City had close to 700,000 stops one year. That was excessive and not targeted. I’m working on a study with the National Police Foundation in which pedestrian stops will be used at very high violent crime hot spots, with the police involved given a five-day training program in constitutional law and procedural justice. Will that give us the benefits of stop and frisk without the negative outcomes? We don’t know yet.

Will the current wave of activism bring positive change?

I’m not sure the lessons people draw from this will be helpful. It would be great if Congress recognized the need for guidelines and greater control over local police, but I don’t think this will happen. I think cities that focus on defunding will see increases in crime, and growing dissatisfaction with the police.

Are Jewish communities more favorably inclined toward the police?

Jews have been historically suspicious of the police. But Jews in America today generally don’t live on very high-crime streets, and accordingly, don’t have much need for or contact with the police. I’ve noticed that in synagogues people are very appreciative of the police who come to protect them. But Jews today, who are mostly Democrats, tend to be concerned about police reform. And everyone should be.


Should We Rethink the Police? | Yes, Unequivocally

Should we rethink the police?

If you mean, should we rethink how we meet the needs of community members who now interact with the police, the answer is unequivocally yes. We’ve used patrol officers for a sort of one-size-fits-all policing: domestic violence, traffic violations, loitering, homelessness, investigating homicides and more. They’re trained to deploy force and enforce the law, but that’s not always what’s needed. If somebody calls the police because of a dispute between neighbors, it’s not clear it’ll be solved by an armed officer without mediation training. Our officers are armed more heavily than anyone else in the world. Fixing that is tricky, because our residents also have more guns. But usually, when the police are called, we don’t need armed intervention. We need skills the police might not have: mediation, social services, forensic science.

What changes would help?

We should ask instead what services should be provided, and by whom. We need victim services, but the police aren’t very adept at that. Solving the crime, finding the person who committed it—we might do better to give that task to trained investigators. Forensic investigation, the kind you see on television, is very complex and scientific. A patrol officer might not be the right person. Even in the traditional police functions of protecting people from crime and violence, there might be a role for someone other than police officers. Trained domestic violence mediation officers have been successful, and certain kinds of community watch. Also, what do you mean by crime? In many places, to fight violent crime, the police have aggressively enforced lower-level offenses: littering, loitering or selling loose cigarettes on the street, as in the Eric Garner incident. The police rarely show when a serious crime is in progress. They come afterwards, when other skills are needed.

Is defunding the police a solution?

People talk about defunding for two reasons. Sometimes, when police show up, they cause harm: unnecessary arrests, searches, use of force. Or sometimes they show up and don’t solve the problem: Just because they’re the first responder doesn’t mean they’re the right responder. If a relative is in mental health distress, you might need a mental health professional. If there’s a homeless person outside your yard, you might need a social worker. So we either should train police dramatically differently so the harms aren’t created, or build up other programs to make sure there are responders capable of solving the problem. That’s where the focus on funding comes in—people feel funds have not been provided for community needs. But the two issues are actually separate. You could take a lot of money away from the police and still not meet community needs.

Are the police a racist institution?

The police have a difficult history regarding race, without any doubt. If you go back to slave patrols, enforcing Jim Crow, the drug war, mass incarceration—these things are all directly about race or inflected with it. Then again, every bit as much finger-pointing should be at elected officials who have simply dropped the ball by not addressing these issues and the difficulties police face. They’ve been left to figure it out for themselves.

We should ask what services need to be provided, and by whom

This is the focus of a project I run at New York University Law School. In every other sector, accountability is about regulating behavior before it happens. But all we ever talk about with police is punishing people after things go wrong. What we don’t do is pass laws and give them instructions about what we want. That needs to change.

How much current activism is a backlash to the more aggressive strategies of the last two decades?

It’s half the story. Half is a reaction to overpolicing—police showing up and doing harm, zero tolerance, “broken windows” policies that focused on minor offenses. The other half is a response to longstanding community needs that haven’t been met that are now acute, such as homelessness.

Will the current wave of activism bring positive change?

There are many states now considering legislation around policing. I think we’re going to see legislation in the next few years on use of force, remedies for those injured by the police, and the appropriate use of policing technologies such as facial recognition software. We need legislation on all of it—it’s almost entirely unregulated. A lot will be state-level; there are reasons for federal legislation, but there are also federalism issues. But I’m hopeful that this is a moment when we’ll bring fundamental accountability to the police.

Are Jewish communities more favorably inclined toward the police?

Every community wants protection. Some communities get it and others don’t. Anyone Jewish should be aware of the needs of other communities, particularly Black and marginalized communities. It behooves us as Jews to care beyond ourselves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.