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Why Baltimore didn’t defund the police Performative politics won't help victims of crime

The slogans of activists are not very productive. Credit: Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The slogans of activists are not very productive. Credit: Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images


May 25, 2022   8 mins

In Baltimore the protests that followed the death of George Floyd felt less like an eruption and more like a mellow reprisal of events that had taken place five years earlier. The death of Freddie Gray in police custody had sparked protests that ended in injuries to both protestors and police, mass arrests, widespread property damage, arson, and no significant policy changes. The 2020 protests, in contrast, were less spontaneous, largely directed by civic leaders, and far less violent. Out of their ashes emerged a young mayoral candidate named Brandon Scott, who was running on a progressive platform of public safety.

As DEFUND BPD graffiti took over a prominent billboard on North Avenue, Scott was one of the few candidates who seemed in sync with the activist moment. He questioned the authorities’ over-reliance on police presence as they attempted to curb the violence plaguing the city. What Baltimore needed, he argued, was an expanded social safety net. But the darling of the activist Left would soon find himself at odds with his earliest supporters, as the reality of running a city with a spiking homicide rate became clear.

These tensions between activists and politicians were happening all across the country. Activists had been campaigning to end police violence for years when the death of George Floyd caught the world’s attention: finally, and abruptly, the words “defund the police” and “prison abolition” were appearing on the front page of the New York Times. Local politicians started running on issues such as bail reform. A handful of cities, from Philadelphia to Chicago to Seattle, all announced they were reallocating funds from bloated police budgets to other city services. Approximately $870 million was slashed from police departments nationwide. The idea was that with fewer police there would be more money to spend on the other services people want, which are typically underfunded. This in turn would boost the sense of community and stability — which should create a higher quality of life and theoretically bring down crime rates.

And then the homicide rate started to climb in cities across America. Many other crime statistics remained flat, but opponents to police reforms now had a frame for the backlash. Enthusiasm for slashing police budgets has faded — as has the idea that other services, such as housing, health, and drug rehabilitation programs, should be prioritised.

The debate is now absurdly binary: either you care about police violence, or you care about the homicide rate. Both these issues disproportionately affect the same demographics: economically vulnerable people living in under-serviced neighbourhoods are more likely to experience violence at the hands of both police and non-police. But anyone hoping to be an accepted member of either the Left or the Right must exaggerate one issue and erase the other.

Baltimore, a city plagued by poverty and violence, is a microcosm of what the defund debate has become. Brandon Scott’s main rival in the hotly contested 2020 mayoral race was former mayor Sheila Dixon. She started in the lead, despite the fact that she’d had to resign after being accused of stealing and using gift cards that had been donated to the city for distribution to needy families. One reason for her popularity, despite her alleged crimes, was her previous ability to bring the homicide rate to its lowest level in decades. Her success was mostly credited to “focused deterrence”, a strategy that includes police presence in high-risk communities and police intervention in the lives of high-risk individuals. Despite being effective and popular, this approach was mostly abandoned in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, after anti-police sentiment had swept the city (the six officers involved were charged and their trials resulted in a mix of a mistrial, acquittals, and dropped charges; all officers returned to duty).

Still, it was Scott, who was city council president, who won out in the end. For years, he has approached gun violence as a public health crisis — one that requires sustained engagement from services beyond law enforcement. He has discussed the reallocation of resources to give other forms of intervention priority; activists interpreted this as support for the idea of defunding the police. And yet when he released his first city budget for approval, and the police budget remained around the same level as his predecessor’s, he was roundly condemned by critics on social media.

In response, Scott gave an interview in the Baltimore Sun, in which he criticised the “defund the police” slogan and its activists for focusing on the means rather than the ends. “We have to do a better job of explaining to folks what we’re talking about.” The goal should be a city in which every citizen is given the opportunity to flourish, and defunding the police doesn’t in itself achieve this. Moving numbers around on a budget is not policy; it is a symbolic gesture. And it’s a gesture that will only satisfy a small number of activists; a large percentage of residents would prefer the same or more police presence in their neighbourhoods. The majority support police reform over abolition.

Scott still believes in reallocating resources and ending the dependence the city has on police, but, he said in an interview with The Trace, “I need time.” He continued, “I have been consistent that reimagining public safety and the budget would not be overnight work.” But time is not something many activists have been willing to grant him. He has been in office for a year and a half, and has already become a target for those on the far-Left, who often point to this one budgetary marker as a sign of his failings rather than fairly assessing his policies. Scott’s first municipal budget increased funding for police to cover rising healthcare and pension costs. During the Taxpayers’ Night — an open forum for citizens to give feedback about how the city’s funds are being spent — multiple activists waited in line to express their anger and frustration with him. Many said they regretted voting for the young mayor.

When I moved from Baltimore to Philadelphia last year, I found a similar dynamic, with complicated realities obscured by the binaries, opportunism and bitter rivalries of local politics. Since the summer when 66,000 people marched in support of Black Lives Matter here, Philadelphia has been moving up the list of metropolises with the highest homicide rates in America. In 2019, it was fourteenth; now, it is twelfth. Last year, there were more murders here than in New York and Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, police shootings here have not made national headlines. Earlier this month police officer Edsual Mendoza was charged with murder. He shot 12-year-old Thomas Siderio in March. Between 2013 and 2021, 39 people, 26 of them black, were killed by the police.

Still, only a very small percentage of Philly’s population actually wants a decrease of police presence — including in neighbourhoods where police have killed or brutalised residents. They want services, such as affordable housing and free health clinics and public transportation and better schools, but they also say public safety is a top priority, and see police presence as a part of solving that problem.

Only 44% of Philadelphia residents feel “safe” in their neighbourhoods at night, and the largest percentage of residents who do are white. There is some truth to the criticism that the liberals who support defunding the police often don’t live in the neighbourhoods most afflicted by gun violence and homicides. And it doesn’t help that the most prominent professional activists in this arena, whether part of Black Lives Matter or the Women’s March, make headlines for lucrative book deals and expensive real estate purchases. The people on social media who most frequently and loudly talk about defunding the police often have extensive media bylines in their bios.

The city’s District Attorney, Larry Krasner, is adjacent to this demographic: a white civil rights attorney whose  education from University of Chicago and Stanford has been brought up in a few of the conversations against him I’ve overheard. Krasner was elected in 2017, following widespread protests in Philadelphia against police violence — and the arrest of the previous DA Seth Williams on federal corruption charges. Krasner ran on a platform of ambitious reform, and he has delivered: his office has declined to prosecute low level prostitution or marijuana possession, and it is also implementing the controversial bail reform measures. Requiring cash for bail has for a long time left the poorest people in jail for weeks, months, and, in at least one high profile case, years, awaiting trial for nonviolent crimes. Krasner and other reformist DAs like him have pledged to put an end to this possibility, letting low-level offenders go home to wait for trial.

Krasner’s platform and unapologetic manner have brought him national attention, including an eight-part documentary series on PBS that gives an inside look at the work in his office and the controversies that have sprung from his tactics. Bail reform is an easy target for the Right: if someone with an extensive record commits a heinous act, a conservative will inevitably go on television to demand to know why that person was “on the streets” in the first place and not in prison. Locally, Krasner has been blamed for the increasing homicide rate, by both politicians and members of the police.

But like Scott in Baltimore, the most serious criticism that Krasner faces comes from his own side, the Left. In the mind of his most prominent critic, Michael Nutter, Krasner is a white saviour, thinking he knows best how to order the world while underserving the black people in neighbourhoods hardest hit by violence. The former mayor, who is black, said in an interview with the Washington Post: “It all goes back to supremacy, paternalism. ‘I’m woke. I’m paying attention. I spend a lot of time with Black people. Some of my best friends
’ All that bullshit.”

Nutter has referred in speeches to young black men as an “endangered species”, threatened by imprisonment, poverty, and violent death. He has long been an advocate for public safety, both before and after his eight years as mayor, and his term saw a significant decline in the Philadelphia homicide rate. Although there is no consensus about why or how that drop happened, but Nutter’s work, like Sheila Dixon’s in Baltimore, has often included a close relationship with the police, including controversial measures such as stop and frisk. As soon as Nutter left office, the white progressive Jim Kenney was elected as mayor and Krasner was elected DA, and those tactics were discontinued. And the homicide rate once again started to rise.

The most recent city budget presented by mayor Kenney significantly increased the funding for “anti-violence” programs, including neighbourhood organisations, after-school and summer programs, and workforce development programs — the same types of programs Defund the Police advocates have argued should take priority over policing. Philadelphia has also been slowly implementing other police-related reforms, such as a citizen oversight committee and the deployment of mental health professionals alongside police for certain emergency calls. Krasner enjoys widespread support from black voters, and his reforms have been largely popular in the city, despite the fact that a small handful of crimes have involved people who had been released on charges awaiting trial. But the effects of his work are not yet visible. The homicide rate for 2022 is already above what had been recorded by the same time last year.

The reality is that when crime rates go down, it’s hard to pinpoint a specific reason. Everything from neighbourhood development to the removal of lead paint from homes to robust police forces were credited with Philadelphia’s drop in violent crime in the Eighties. Similarly, when the homicide rate increased during the pandemic, many contradictory reasons were given. Gun sales had gone up — but was this cause, effect, or unrelated? Unemployment had gone up, but when it declined again it had no effect on the rate of violent crime. Were the police effectively on “strike”, refusing to engage in the prevention or intervention of dangerous situations because they were concerned about being blamed for bad results? Something similar had happened in Baltimore after the uprising that followed Freddie Gray’s death. But maybe other problems contributed too, such as rising rents or the difficulty of accessing health services during the pandemic.

The lack of clarity has allowed anyone, with any agenda, to speculate publicly about why homicide rates are climbing. For the head of the police union, it’s because the police force is underfunded and under-appreciated by the community. For conservatives, it’s because of broken families and lack of personal responsibility or because authorities are soft on criminals. For liberals, it’s the lack of gun control laws or poverty.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle, just as effective policy lies somewhere between anti-police activism and an unquestioningly pro-police stance. Crime rates aren’t predictable or easy to change, as local leaders across America are discovering. To pretend otherwise is to fail its victims.


Jessa Crispin is the author of three books, most recently Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto. 

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Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 year ago

Killadelphia Pennsylvania, Chiraq Illinois, Bodymore Murderland, these have been common nicknames for these cities for at least two decades. There is nothing new about this. Every time someone proposes simple solutions to complicated problems. More affordable housing? Just build massive, ugly apartments that turn into crime ridden hell holes to be torn down in a decade or two. Economic opportunity? You run into the catch-22 where you need business investment and jobs to revitalize the community, but no one wants to because the communities are crime ridden and run down. Fix the terrible infrastructure? For some reason those funds always go to fixing up downtown to “attract tourism”. Gun control? Considering how these cities have some of the strictest gun control in the whole country but their homicide rate is off the chart, that has not worked at all. Not to mention areas outside of these cities with much less gun control do not have even remotely close to the amount of gun violence they do. At least doing pointless gestures like extending the waiting period for firearm purchases from one to two weeks allows local politicians to pretend like they care. Even if you were to remove guns from the equation, people are also stabbed or beaten to death in the inner cities on a regular basis. End the War on Drugs? Sounds nice but how are you going to go about it and avoid creating new problems? As much as I do not like seeing people go to prison over marijuana possession, turning a blind eye to meth, heroin, and fentanyl does not sound like a good idea. Plus, selling drugs is seen as a way out of poverty. You need to have alternatives. Better education? Inner city schools have been terrible for decades and no matter how much politicians and teacher unions talk about it, nothing has changed. Change gang culture? Young men are still committing drive byes against those they think “disrespected” them and “community efforts” seem to at best maintain the status quo. Criminal justice reform? Sounds nice but some people need to be behind bars and cannot be allowed back on the street. Also, you need police in the community or criminals can just do whatever they want. I hate to say it, but I have little hope for the future. It took generations of decline to get to this point and it will probably take generations of improvement to get out of it

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt Hindman
ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Sadly you can now add Texas to that list.

Johnny Ramone
Johnny Ramone
1 year ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Nah .. that was a bona fide nutter. (And clear to all on the ground -but outside of acceptable punditry speculation – a Covid Quarantine, lived too long on the Internet casualty .. a condition not likely to be recreated in Texas again).

Last edited 1 year ago by Johnny Ramone
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Considering how these cities have some of the strictest gun control in the whole country but their homicide rate is off the chart, that has not worked at all. Not to mention areas outside of these cities with much less gun control do not have even remotely close to the amount of gun violence they do.

So, in these cities gun control is strict and just outside not so. I am a criminal in one of these cities and I can’t get a gun in the city – what to do, what to do? Just a thought,

Russ W
Russ W
1 year ago

Symptom not cause. Most of the crime is done with illegal firearms.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 year ago
Reply to  Russ W

I seem to recall that Switzerland has more guns per capita than anywhere else in the Western World, but with one major exception, it remains peaceful.

Paul Foote
Paul Foote
1 year ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

It remains peaceful because its demographic is mostly white people and because most of those people share the same culture. If you were to eliminate the black areas of Baltimore from the crime statistics you will find it is on the same level as Switzerland and Sweden. (You may not like that fact, you may even think it is racist, but that is just the way it is.)

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Foote

I might be wrong, but exclude black crime and homicide per capita is still higher than West Europe but not extraordinary so. Something like 3 per 100k versus 1-1.5 for European peers.

Baltimore and co have rates that put them in the same ballpark as South Africa or certain Latin American countries, though

mike otter
mike otter
1 year ago

Plenty of guns for sale online in USA

mike otter
mike otter
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Cops and politicos of either stripe make nothing out of weed or trips. Their slush money is from junk/meth/crack where their victims are desperate and trapped geographically and economically so cannot escape. De-criminalisation and medicalisation of addiction is the only way to stop this human disaster. As far as drug cartels go they are after paying customers all the way from the top down. Customers who can’t pay or steal to pay are no customers at all – that’s why they buy from cops n politico’s stooges/muñecas.

Last edited 1 year ago by mike otter
Russ W
Russ W
1 year ago

I appreciate the author’s attempts to occupy a middle ground. But let’s start at the beginning: Defund the police is based on the lie of “police bias.”
Argument for bias:
While on average police kill more whites each year, blacks are about 2.5 to 3 times more likely to be killed by the police than whites per capita, i.e. number of whites killed out of the total number of whites in the US v.s. number blacks killed out of the total number of blacks in the US. This measurement is factually accurate.
All 40 of the Washington Post’s studies claiming police bias in killing blacks used this measurement.
Argument against bias:
None of the studies claiming bias suggested the problem was police killing people outside of their doing their job of policing, making arrests.
The argument against police bias is that to accurately measure the likelihood of a black or white person being killed by the police we must look at the number of times police interacted with them in a situation that could turn violent: arrests and not simply comparing the rates of people killed per the total number of black or whites in our population.
From 2015-2017 blacks were .02 times more likely to be killed during an arrest than whites. Or 51.5 out of every 1 million blacks were killed by police during an arrest while 50.4 out of every one million white were killed by police during and arrest.
Conclusion:
So, does the per capita measurement agree with the more precise arrest based method?
The per capita population assessment exaggerates the number of black suspects being killed by police by a factor of 100 or (2/.02 = 100). The approach makes the number of blacks shot by police compared to whites 100 times greater than it actually is.
None of the 40 academic studies claimed that police routinely kill people outside of their doing their job of arresting people. The vast majority of people of any race do not get arrested or interact with the police at all each year. As a result, it is incorrect to calculate the rate of police killing a suspect during an arrest by counting members of a population that were not arrested or did not interact with the police. You can’t be killed by someone who you never met. Exaggerating a statistic by a factor of 100 is wrong and reprehensible.
Sources:
1.The most quoted and authoritative source supporting police bias is the Washington Post (a politically center-left newspaper) and a few other liberal think tanks. I paid for a subscription and studied the roughly 40 studies making that case
2. The most credible source refuting bias was the Wall Street Journal (a politically center-right newspaper) and a mix of conservative/libertarian think tanks. I similarly studied the arguments claiming no significant police bias
3. All of the studies on both sides used FBI, Dept. Of Justice, Office Of Justice, and the National Violent Death Reporting System data

Last edited 1 year ago by Russ W
Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

A personal anecdote about Baltimore: In the late 80s, two of our college buddies left Manhattan for Baltimore to start a small in-home ad agency. They bought a classic narrow, three-story row house on a leafy street just a few blocks from what would soon become the Camden Yards ball field. It was an easy walk from their place to the sparkling renovation of the Inner Harbor and the train to D.C. Since all four of us had lived in Manhattan at the same time during the dangerous disaster of the Koch years, we thought this was very forward-thinking: there are other cool cities out there! Time to get in on the ground floor of these up-and-comers!
Our first visit down was week-long and I was visibly pregnant. During the day, the neighborhood and the downtown were exciting, electric, alive. But every single night the place became unrecognizable. Children – including toddlers – were out on the streets in front of our friends’ house into the wee hours. Fights were constant, bottles smashed against buildings, music blasted, drugs were openly smoked, people screamed, gun shots were heard (our bedroom on the second floor faced the street; it was terrifying). Then, come morning, the yuppie homeowners would go out before work with garbage bags and brooms and clean the mess up, as if it were all just part of their job. They did this every day we were there.
That was 1990.
I could go on* – we visited a few times after that until it got so that we didn’t even want to drive through it on the highway to somewhere else. Baltimore’s elected and appointed leaders are hopelessly corrupt; they are part of the criminal class that flourishes there. Policing is every catastrophe city’s favorite scapegoat, but it obviously goes much farther, deeper, and more personally painful than residents wish to honestly admit. It’s up to the citizens of Baltimore to determine how they wish to live.
*During that same visit, we wanted to see the Orioles play (Cal Ripken rose to second place that night on the consecutive games played list), so we took a cab to the old ball field. Our driver, an elderly black guy, was furious with my husband: “What are you doing taking your pregnant wife through these neighborhoods? At night?! Are you crazy?!!” He told us to to call for another cab and leave at the seventh inning stretch, which we did. The cab came, and it was our earlier driver. He lectured my husband all the way back!

Last edited 1 year ago by Allison Barrows
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

Great story Allison!

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Thank you, Sir. Wish the outcome was a happier one.

John Ronning
John Ronning
1 year ago

Left out of this discussion is the most important factor, which is fatherlessness in our inner cities, incentivized by the welfare system. Around 1 out of 6 here in Baltimore grows up with a Dad in his life. It’s been known for decades that whether a child grows up with both a Mom and a Dad in his life is more important than any other factor. For Baltimore before and after welfare for single Moms, google cnn lord of the flies Baltimore 2015, by a cnn reporter who had grown up in Baltimore, returned after our 2015 riots and asked “where are the men?” The answer he got, they’re dead or in prison.

Russ W
Russ W
1 year ago
Reply to  John Ronning

“For conservatives, it’s because of broken families and lack of personal responsibility or because authorities are soft on criminals. For liberals, it’s the lack of gun control laws or poverty.”
For 50 years, broken families have strongly correlated with poverty and violence. This is true for all groups, white and black, etc. There are significantly more poor whites than blacks in the US.
Sub-cultures (e.g. Rap vs. Country, Gang vs. Trailer trash) and population density differences are all that appear to explain why one sub-culture group is more violent than the other.
Gun control laws are not predictive of violence levels. And personal responsibility and poverty are overly simplistic terms relative to setting policy and realizing change. A frightened, fatherless young man in a sea of frightened, fatherless young men, will struggle to overcome their situations.
The woke should consider this irony: “A nation of lost and fatherless boys and drifting young men is terrified that we have too much patriarchy,” Anthony Esolen writes. “Why, it reinforces my belief in the existence of demons: unassisted man could never be so blank and stupid as to fear that fathers have too much authority when boys and girls by tens of millions grow up with none at all. Only Beelzebub can explain it.”

Last edited 1 year ago by Russ W
Samir Iker
Samir Iker
1 year ago
Reply to  Russ W

There are plenty of countries with loose gun laws that are peaceful and enjoy low crime rates.

There are no societies with high rates of fatherlessness that manage to avoid descending into utter lawlessness.

Conservatives have got it right.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

In the mean time let’s try to keep guns out of the hands of the people who descend into lawlessness.

Johnny Ramone
Johnny Ramone
1 year ago

As they did in Ukraine .. invaded by an Army that assumed an unarmed population.
How many children?

Last edited 1 year ago by Johnny Ramone
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago

“vulnerable people living in under-serviced neighbourhoods are more likely to experience violence at the hands of both police and non-police.”
That was a misrepresentation, making a false equivalence between police and non-police violence.
There will also be rare exceptions but most people coming to the attention of law enforcement will do so because they are engaged in criminal activities. The police do not go round poor neighbourhoods engaging in random acts of violence.

Gordon Arta
Gordon Arta
1 year ago

‘(In Philadelphia) Between 2013 and 2021, 39 people, 26 of them black, were killed by the police.’ And in the same period there were more than 2500 murders in the city, in 85% of which the victims and perpetrators were black or Hispanic. In the vast majority of police killings the victim was an armed criminal; in almost all the other killings the victims, many of them children, were unarmed and uninvolved in criminal activity at the time of their death.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 year ago

Wow. I was amazed at this article. Even-handed, thoughtful, thorough. Thank you. Everyone who read this became a little smarter.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

I’ve often wondered if Americans behave differently because they know someone may have a gun – maybe less confrontational than us in the U.K.?
When I was in my twenties to my forties (80s to 00s) in London, if I saw something happen in the street or on a train/bus that was bullying or intimidating a weaker person, I’d get involved – usually using my strong Scots accent, loud voice and articulacy with swearing to attract attention and get people to back off. It usually worked, the worst that happened was me getting a punch in the face.
But now people use knives so commonly in the U.K., I wouldn’t behave in the same way as you’re likely to get stabbed. So I wonder, do Americans similarly ‘restrain’ themselves more (in day to day life, not protests!) knowing that other parties may have guns?

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

It honestly depends on which part of the country you are in. In rural America, there is an understanding that there is a line you do not cross in regards to things such as serious threats, acts of violence, or home invasions because you are likely to get shot. There is also the understanding that if you do not have a legally sound reason for pointing a gun at someone you are in deep legal trouble. In America’s inner cities however, things get crazy. Part of the problem is there is a culture where violence often escalates over trivial things. “Hey that guy disrespected me! Time to bust a cap in his ass!” “You are on the wrong turf. BANG BANG!” “Some guy was fooling with my girl. Guess it is murder time.” It is almost as if there is little care whether they live or die and the probability that the other guy has a gun matters little. Quick tempers, an eagerness to fight, inflated pride, lack of concern for bystanders, and the need for retaliation keep the bodies piling up almost as much as the disputes over drug distribution territory.

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt Hindman
Johnny Ramone
Johnny Ramone
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

All I know is that when we moved from Texas to Falls Church Virginia (D.C.) I was gobsmacked at the how rude the drivers dared to be .. and I came to the conclusion that was due to more than our reknowned Southern friendliness, after all Virginia is also in the South. In Texas I can’t imagine not being concerrned that you would be shot if you continued to honk at someone unless you were genuinely trying to warn them of a danger .. the sound of the variety of car horns itself was a novelty to us for quite awhile. And yes we did move from a large Texas city.

Last edited 1 year ago by Johnny Ramone
David McDowell
David McDowell
1 year ago

It’s a shame they didn’t defund.

Douglas H
Douglas H
1 year ago

Thanks, Jessa – good article