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Collages by Mike McQuade. Source images: Police officers in combat uniform © Kostya Pazyuk/Alamy; Black Lives Matter protester © Edwin Remsberg/Alamy; Minneapolis © Superstock/Alamy

Collages by Mike McQuade. Source images: Police officers in combat uniform © Kostya Pazyuk/Alamy; Black Lives Matter protester © Edwin Remsberg/Alamy; Minneapolis © Superstock/Alamy


Crime and Punishment

Can American policing be fixed?

In May 2020, the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd sparked the largest wave of civil unrest in U.S. history. An estimated twenty-three million people took to the streets, calling for the reformation, defunding, disarming, or even abolition of police departments. Protesters pointed to policing’s disproportionate targeting of black and brown communities, its role in creating the world’s largest carceral state, and its increasing reliance on military weapons and tactics. Defenders of law enforcement countered that a militarized police force is necessary to regulating the most heavily armed civilian population on earth. These defenders claimed that racism is not endemic to American policing, and that defunding departments would be catastrophic for the very marginalized communities that the protesters sought to support.

In the years that followed, state and local governments across the country considered major reforms, with some increasing budgets for housing and addiction programs and creating unarmed response teams to handle non-violent mental-health emergencies. At the same time, officer recruitment flagged, and the ranks of police departments in some of the largest metropolitan areas shrank. But the effect of these changes has been hard to measure: In New Orleans, where the number of sworn officers decreased by about 20 percent in the two years after Floyd’s death, violent crime increased, and its murder rate became the highest in the country. In Minneapolis, however, where the size of the department has fallen by around 40 percent, the number of homicides has plummeted.

These discrepancies, which were further complicated by varying local responses to the pandemic, appear to suggest no clear path forward. What have we learned in the four years since George Floyd’s murder? Which reforms have proved most successful in reducing violence, both on the part of police officers and among the communities they serve? And what, if anything, can be done to fix law enforcement in the United States?

On November 30, 2023, Harper’s Magazine and Georgetown Law’s Center for Innovations in Community Safety convened a panel of scholars to discuss the future of American policing with the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and the police chief of Minneapolis, each of whom has been credited with reducing violent crime in their cities. The panel assembled in New York City in the Harper’s offices, and the discussion continued by email correspondence among the participants.



Ras Baraka is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey.


Rosa Brooks is the author of  Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City, a member of the Harper’s Magazine Foundation board of directors, and the Scott K. Ginsburg Professor of Law and Policy at Georgetown. She spent five years as a reserve police officer in Washington and co-directs Georgetown Law’s Center for Innovations in Community Safety.


Barry Friedman is the Jacob D. Fuchsberg Professor of Law and faculty director of the Policing Project at the New York University School of Law. He is the author of Unwarranted: Policing Without Permission.


Christy E. Lopez is a professor from practice at Georgetown Law and the faculty director of Georgetown Law’s Center for Innovations in Community Safety. She worked in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice from 1995 to 2000 and again from 2010 to 2017, investigating police departments and implementing reforms.


Tracey L. Meares is the Walton Hale Hamilton Professor of Law at Yale Law School, the co-founder of the Justice Collaboratory, and a co-editor of the Annual Review of Criminology.


Brian O’Hara is the chief of police in Minneapolis.


Patrick Sharkey is the William S. Tod Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University and the author of Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence.



rosa brooks: We are here in New York City, where Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain, was elected, in part, for his pledge to increase the number of officers patrolling the streets. For many on the left, this promise, made by a Democrat campaigning to run one of the country’s most liberal cities, was counterintuitive. After the protests following George Floyd’s death in 2020, it appeared that the pendulum had swung decisively away from the belief that increasing the size of police departments would solve the problems plaguing American cities. So what’s going on here? When it comes to thinking about policing, crime, and the relationship between the two, what do people get wrong? Let me start with you, Mr. Mayor.

ras baraka: People don’t understand that crime is a public-health issue. Violence travels like a pathogen; it is infectious. Specific conditions in communities invite crime. If they are addressed, criminal activity can be reduced, even eliminated. There are police officers who will tell you that the same blocks have had the same amount of crime for twenty years. As a government, we need to start asking: What have we been doing in those areas to reduce the violence, besides telling the police to arrest people?

barry friedman: Part of the difficulty is, on both the left and the right, many people have no clue what police officers actually do. I’m caricaturing a bit here, but the right thinks police officers are superhumans who magically reduce crime and keep order, while the left thinks they spend their days harassing black and brown residents. The truth is that, oftentimes, police officers are responding to emergencies for which they have received little to no training—issues pertaining to mental health or homelessness or noise disturbances. And when it comes to violent crimes, the public fails to grasp that even though police officers are trained to respond to these incidents, they have little ability to prevent them from occurring. That’s because, as Ras was saying, crime is often the result of factors that are independent of anything policing is designed to address: the economy, with its ups and downs; the flow of drugs, including opioids, across the border; lighting on streets; blighted corners. The list goes on. Across the political spectrum, people are seriously out of touch with what the police can accomplish.

brian o’hara: I’ve spent the past year running the police department in Minneapolis, and I’m still shocked by how extreme these ideologies are. Minneapolis is just one of a few blue dots in the middle of a rural red state. For some folks, hating the police has become a political cause. There’s still a very strong movement to defund the police, even in the middle of a five-alarm fire. In Minneapolis, 374 people were shot this year, which is outrageous. And we’re a police department that’s 40 percent smaller than it was a few years ago.

christy e. lopez: Can I ask you a question about that? You’re saying that Minneapolis is having to make do with far fewer officers. But homicides are actually down from last year. How do you make sense of that?

o’hara: It’s because we are being incredibly precise, going after the people who are causing the most serious harm to the community. For example: this year, for the first time in the history of the state, we used the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act against gang members dealing fentanyl. RICO, which was developed in the Seventies to prosecute the Italian Mafia in New York City, empowers law enforcement to target entire criminal organizations at once, instead of just individual members. In our case, this allowed us to very efficiently dismantle a fentanyl-trafficking ring. That alone had a significant impact on violence.

The problem now is that people are saying, “See, homicides are down in almost all major cities. This proves that you don’t need cops, that you can continue to reduce the ranks.”

lopez: But doesn’t the example you just gave indicate that we can make do with fewer police officers and shift some of those resources to a broader public-safety response?

o’hara: No. The situation is not sustainable. When I say that the department is 40 percent smaller than it was at the start of 2020, that’s overall. Our investigations unit has shrunk by almost 50 percent. We might soon be in a situation where we’re just not going to investigate property crimes anymore. We might have to do that. And the community that will suffer the most is North Minneapolis. On my first visit there after becoming chief, it felt like New York City on September 12, 2001. People really, really want police protection. They just want good police officers. But then you have wealthier residents on the other side of town who are still screaming to get rid of us, even though the most that happens in their neighborhoods is change getting stolen out of their cars.

patrick sharkey: On that side of town, the clear misconception is that the police aren’t effective. We have strong evidence in the social sciences indicating that when you have more police officers on the street, it reduces violent crime. There’s just no way to argue that claim.

brooks: They think that violent crime is just some right-wing myth.


brooks: Pat, how did violence become the fundamental threat to our cities?

sharkey: To answer that, we have to go all the way back to the Fifties and Sixties. At that time, the federal government and state governments were directing their resources away from inner cities. Neighborhoods quickly fell apart. Poverty increased, public housing crumbled, schools became dilapidated, and churches emptied out. When this happened, neighbors stopped talking to one another, and people retreated from parks and public spaces. All of this, plus the prevalence of guns, created the conditions for violence. To this day, these factors have left cities in a difficult position. That’s why Newark deals with problems that Maplewood, New Jersey, doesn’t have to—even though the latter is only nine miles down the road.

Policing takes a huge chunk out of Newark’s—and Minneapolis’s—budget. But the federal government doesn’t spend much on it. States don’t spend much either. So the wealth of each local community ends up determining the quality of its police force. That’s what we call spatial inequality, and law enforcement agencies deal with it every day.

baraka: Cities just don’t have enough resources. People are always talking about mayors being innovative and creative. But what we’re really doing is stopping people from drowning, right? We’re not building them a boat. We’re not creating a new structure. To do that, we as a country need to understand that policing in America developed in a very dangerous and inequitable time. The mission of the police was to preserve inequality. Period.

brooks: You’re specifically talking about race?

baraka: I’m talking about race and class. And that mission has not changed.

When I talk to high-up officers, the brass, they say, “The new police officers are afraid.” But why? They have not even been on a case yet. What are they afraid of? What’s happening that’s making them fearful? Well, they grew up in a society that’s telling them that policing is very dangerous, that these people are dangerous, that these children are in fact men, that they will harm you, that they will kill you. Meanwhile, there are grandmothers walking through these neighborhoods every single day. But here you go with a badge, a gun, a radio, and a bulletproof vest, and you’re more afraid than my grandmother? This makes no sense. We must deal with it.

tracey l. meares: You have to do so in a city-specific way. There is no explanation for the behavior of police departments on a national level. It’s become very common to say that the origin of all policing is slave patrols. That is wrong. Aspects of it, especially in the South, are true. But in the Northeast, the origin of policing is very different—it was partly about managing immigration. In Chicago, policing was shaped by the city’s culture of political patronage. In the West, policing developed to control other out-groups, like Indigenous people. Each city’s police department exists in a different historical context.

sharkey: There’s also the varying structures of departments in different cities. Policing is the most decentralized institution in the United States. There’s no other one that’s close to it. So what Brian does in Minneapolis is nothing like what Ras might do in Newark, because there are no common regulations to force them to do the same thing.

meares: If you looked it up, you would see that in 2020 there are 130,930 K–12 schools in the United States. Google it. When people talk about police departments, they say things like, “There are eighteen thousand law-enforcement agencies.” It’s not because they’re rounding the number off. It’s because we don’t know the actual number. We don’t know.

brooks: It’s unique to the United States. Many countries have a single, national police force. But here we have thousands of separate law-enforcement agencies, ranging from small-town police departments and sheriff’s offices in rural counties to behemoths like the FBI and the NYPD—which, incidentally, has more officers than many countries have soldiers. There are so many law-enforcement agencies, and they don’t necessarily talk to one another. They don’t think that anybody’s in charge of them.

meares: They don’t even have to report their existence to the United States government.

lopez: But they do share that binding principle of preserving inequality. I should say here that my dad was a police officer for thirty years, a homicide detective. But I’m not speaking about individual officers. As a system, policing has always enforced a racialized social order and prioritized protecting the property of the privileged classes.

baraka: That’s why it was created.

lopez: And that’s why we still tolerate its harms. We know that policing is going to affect each racial group differently. When we see the damage it does in black and brown communities—and the violence in these communities in general—we wring our hands and lament, “Oh, there is nothing we can do. This is all a consequence of intergenerational poverty.” We wouldn’t respond that way if these were impoverished white communities.

brooks: Hold on a second. You said two things: You said we know the problems with policing are about racism, and you said we know they are about property. That “and” is important, right? On the left, there’s a kind of reductionist argument that every problem related to policing is about race and racism. But it’s more complicated than that. Just look at policing in homogeneous white societies around the world. We see police abuses of the kind we have here in the United States. They’re replicated.

lopez: But they are still always against a group seen as the other.

brooks: Let’s all talk more about that. Christy mentioned both race and poverty. Are those of equal weight in explaining police violence?

meares: That question makes the sociologist in me wince because of the way that concentrated poverty works in the United States. Concentrated poverty is typically defined as occurring within a census tract in which 40 percent or more of the population lives below the poverty line. Our discussion of class seems to imply that if you compared a white community living in concentrated poverty with a black community living in concentrated poverty, you would find many of the same policing problems. But you can’t make that comparison, because no such white community exists in this country! There are white people living in areas of concentrated poverty—about 4 percent of them—but most of their neighbors are not white.

brooks: So abuses by the police are fundamentally a problem of race? Or is that too reductionist? That is what I’m trying to untangle.

Source images: President Richard Nixon © Picture Lux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy; police officers © J. G. Domke/Alamy

Source images: President Richard Nixon © Picture Lux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy; police officers
© J. G. Domke/Alamy

sharkey: Let’s look back again at the conditions at midcentury, when the black population was moving north at a time of deeply entrenched racism. In many respects, the way federal and state governments responded to that migration set the stage for the relationship between race and class that we’re talking about now.

At that time, governments began subsidizing the flight of white populations from cities. They insured mortgages that could only be used in predominantly white neighborhoods and built the Interstate Highway System, which allowed more affluent families to move out to the suburbs and avoid integration. When that happened, cities lost their middle classes and the resources that came with them. This was the point at which urban poverty became concentrated. For a few years, the United States did say, We’re going to fight a war on poverty. But that ended with the election of Nixon in 1968. The government started to explain increasing crime rates as a function of lawlessness and disorder—not of injustice and inequality. This view translated into a policy approach: We’re no longer going to try to fight a war on poverty. We’re instead going to extract resources and rely on the police and the prison system to deal with all of the challenges that come when you have extreme urban inequality.

Central cities lost their political influence as they were losing federal resources. So what was left were areas where poverty was concentrated. Much of the middle class was gone. That means churches started to lose their congregants; businesses began to leave; community centers, parks, and other public institutions were not maintained; schools were underfunded. All of these changes created the conditions for violence to rise.

So the relationship between race and urban inequality is complicated. It was racism that drove the United States to disinvest in cities. And that created the conditions of concentrated poverty that allowed violence to emerge. To reduce crime in these areas, we have to confront both the impoverished conditions that allowed it to emerge and the underlying racism that brought about those conditions in the first place.

baraka: To this day, that racism allows white people to tolerate inequality in America. Martin Luther King Jr. said in a speech in Selma that when a white parent couldn’t feed their kid and they were starving from poverty, they fed them a dose of Jim Crow. That kind of privilege makes them think of blacks: Those people are just bums. They’re lazy, they’re this, they’re that.

A lot of these white people become police officers. For them, it’s the only way that they can make some money. They can get a decent job, a career for themselves, in these communities. They become the law, right? And they have these ideas in their heads. And so you get the murder of George Floyd.


brooks: Let’s talk about how we ended up with George Floyd killed in 2020 by Derek Chauvin. Floyd’s death led to nationwide protests, and police leaders and elected officials around the country swore to make policing more just and less violent. Yet in 2023, police officers in the United States killed at least 1,246 people, the highest number in more than a decade—and 27 percent of those killed were black, even though black Americans make up only 14 percent of the population. Brian, you’re now the chief of police in that very city. Why do the police kill so many people every year? And why are a disproportionate percentage of the victims black men?

o’hara: A more frequent issue is the disparate impact according to race that shows up in arrests, stops, and every other enforcement activity that police officers do. And I think some of that is a function of schools failing, racial covenants in housing deeds, redlining. We are dealing with the results of what Pat was talking about. At the same time, we put police officers where the most harm is happening.

But I think there’s a difference between disparities showing up in enforcement data and police officers being consciously racist. And I think the challenge for us is to put systems in place that both ensure that we don’t have any practices that exacerbate those disparities and also ensure that we have ways to identify officers whose behavior might be problematic before something happens.

What my cops hear all the time—and it’s not helpful, especially when it’s from people who are elected—is “you are a racist.” They constantly hear “you personally are a racist.” And it’s not helpful for them, and it’s not helpful to recruitment.

brooks: But leaving aside for a moment the difficulties of untangling the role of race, don’t American police officers still just have a violence problem? I mean, we don’t see such high rates of police killings in most other countries.

o’hara: I think a large problem, in Minneapolis, is West Coast–style police training. It’s not like how police officers are trained on the East Coast. It is dramatically different.

brooks: How so?

o’hara: It’s very, very tactical. I’ve been on plenty of calls where I’ve seen that play out myself. The problem is that there’s such a focus in training on being tactical and on officer safety that they’re approaching every situation like it’s a dangerous encounter. They’re not learning how to engage with people, especially people who are different from them, which is the root of the problem.

It is a pretty difficult thing to try to change. I’ve been taking tools away from them. I’ve been changing their policies, telling them they can’t do this, they can’t do that. It’s difficult to keep shoving it down their throats, particularly when the city is just so insanely violent with guns right now.

brooks: Interesting. When I was going through D.C.’s police academy, the thing that really struck me was exactly what you were just saying—the degree to which the focus was very much on officer safety, tactical safety. The presumption there was that every interaction could hypothetically become lethal to the officer, which seemed weird because it’s so out of proportion to the actual risk. Policing isn’t even among the top ten most dangerous occupations in the United States. Even if you just look at the odds of dying on the job as a result of intentional homicide—e.g., if you exclude accidental deaths—being a taxi, limo, or Uber driver is twice as dangerous as being a police officer. But the training would have led you to believe that every day officers were being gunned down on the streets.

Source images: Police officers during the 1992 Los Angeles riots © ZUMA Press/Alamy; Rodney King being beaten by the LAPD, 1991. Courtesy USC Digital Library. Independent commission of the LAPD

Source images: Police officers during the 1992 Los Angeles riots © ZUMA Press/Alamy; Rodney King being beaten by the LAPD, 1991. Courtesy USC Digital Library. Independent commission of the LAPD

meares: As opposed to dying in their car because they weren’t wearing a seat belt.

brooks: Correct.

o’hara: I’m a licensed peace officer in the state of Minnesota. I have to do all the training that they do to get that license and maintain it. I’ll never forget some of the stuff I saw when I first went there. There were posters, and they were all specific to Minneapolis. The images on them were unbelievable. One of them showed a cop being choked while his partner was also being choked at gunpoint. Another said something like how you train will affect how you perform in combat. Literally: combat was on two of these things. And then I went through the firearms qualification course, where they grade you on how well you shoot. I’m used to the New Jersey standard, where you just train to shoot center mass. In Minneapolis, they tell you, “Okay, next one the head.”

meares: “Two to the body, one to the head.”

o’hara: Why are we training people to shoot someone in the head?

brooks: Right. D.C. trains people to do this, too. Two to the body, one to the head.

o’hara: It makes no sense. There was this one maneuver that I got rid of when I became chief. It was an issue in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed George Floyd. It was a restraint technique called the hobble. It’s inhumane. It is hog-tying a human being. I stood there looking on as they demonstrated it with one another at the academy. I thought it was a joke.

brooks: The D.C. police still use leg irons. Not often, but it’s still part of the training.

o’hara: If you think back to the Rodney King trial of four LAPD officers in 1992, and their testimony, they were standing there saying, “I had no other recourse. I had to keep hitting him with the stick. Otherwise, I would’ve had to shoot him.” And the whole rest of the world is like, No, you could have just handcuffed him.

brooks: I wonder whether part of it is that we’re so intolerant of risk. Coming at this from a background of studying the military, for instance, we don’t tell Marines, “The most important thing is that you come home safe.” I mean, it would be bizarre to tell Marines that. We tell Marines the most important thing is the mission, not their personal safety. The job is to do something on behalf of the country. Now, we may fuck that up in a million different ways, but nonetheless, the ethos that Marines and other military personnel are imbued with is that their safety is not the priority. Accomplishing the mission, whatever that mission might be, is the priority. Compare this with policing, where in all kinds of ways, I think the training still emphasizes that the priority is the safety of the police officer, not the safety of the community.

lopez: Yes, too often the message is “that’s not the job.”

friedman: You’ve also got to look at the entire picture of many of these departments today. Early in the Policing Project’s history, I wanted stop-and-frisk data. So we called up agencies, and I expected to get resistance to sharing their data. They were remarkably forthcoming. And they had one question for me. Do you know what the question was? “What’s your fax number?” My fax number—I’m talking about in 2015 or thereabouts—so they could send the sheets of data they have. I didn’t even know if we had a fax machine. I was totally, totally in awe.

I can’t tell you how often I’m around a policing agency and feel that it’s like living in a completely different world. I have a concern about inappropriate surveillance; I care a lot about transparency. And the left will just scream about how all these things are being hidden from them. And there’s some truth there. But there is also a shockingly low level of technology. If you went and looked at their computer systems, you would be appalled. I think the nice word we use for that today is “legacy.”

brooks: It’s true. Despite the power wielded by the police, many police departments are still operating in the Eighties when it comes to recordkeeping and technology. In D.C., we were still recording seized evidence by hand in these ancient, tattered ledgers. But it’s so varied. A lot of police departments are using robots, they’re using drones, they’re using artificial intelligence algorithms. How is it that policing is simultaneously so high-tech and so . . . primitive?

friedman: Don’t get me wrong. The police are using all kinds of souped-up technology. And they don’t like letting us know what it is. They are using license-plate readers and predictive policing algorithms and drones and now artificial intelligence. They are collecting data on each and every one of us, or subscribing to services from data brokers that provide it. Though, of course, policing being policing, a lot of that data is used in racially disparate ways. But it’s paradoxical, this high tech they have.

Think about this. I don’t know how to paint this graphically enough. A lot of my days are spent thinking about AI and policing. It’s a brave new world that’s coming. And then there are officers driving around in broken-down cars without the capacity to go fast. With guns . . . I mean, guns themselves are kind of primitive if you think about it; they’re these big metal objects. You’d think weapons of the future would be cooler than that. It’s like policing is frozen in amber at some level.

One huge part of the problem is, I believe, regulation—or the lack thereof. We’ve left the police free to just figure it all out for themselves. In the rest of government there are laws and regulations telling our public servants what is expected of them. Not so much with policing. Did you know that most states don’t have a law on the use of force—or, at least, not one that goes beyond the Supreme Court’s admonition that police officers should act reasonably? No laws on what weaponry is permissible, how uses of force must be reported, when the police must use de-escalation techniques to avoid using force. I could go on. And the same is true of surveillance technologies. Most states have no law of any substance to regulate how police officers use technology. I think that is nuts.

meares: Yeah. I’m on the monitoring team of the Baltimore Police Department. And we’ve been there for, I think, six years now. But when we first came in, people would understandably complain about what Baltimore officers were doing on the street. But I will tell you that people within the department didn’t know what anybody was doing on the street, precisely because of these antiquated systems. They had spreadsheet applications from the Seventies. They were taking forms and scanning them in optically. You can’t even manipulate the data. The lack of information they had about what their own people were doing day-to-day was shocking.

And this is even before considering the whole guns issue, which we haven’t even touched on because it’s such a—

lopez: It just monkey-wrenches everything, right?

o’hara: Right. The Minneapolis police had a whole controversy in 2020, the riots, and again in 2021, with the 40mm, less-lethal rounds that they shoot. The way their policy was written, any police officer could use a 40mm gun if they perceived any threat of bodily injury.

brooks: Wow. Any threat?

o’hara: But under the statute, that could be a paper cut.

brooks: Right. So, 40mm rounds are designed for use in crowd control and so on. They shoot rounds that hit people kind of like a baseball thrown by a baseball player, so if one hits you, it’s going to hurt, and maybe leave a big bruise, but probably that’s about it. If there’s a riot, obviously we’d rather have police officers use weapons like this, ones designed to temporarily incapacitate rioters, than weapons that are likely to kill. But the problem is that even “less lethal” weapons can cause serious pain and injury. For the most part, police departments require that police officers calibrate the amount of force they use to the degree of the threat they perceive. So, for instance, if you think a five-year-old kid is going to kick you in the shin, you’re not going to shoot the kid, and you’re not going to hit the kid on the head with a heavy metal baton. That would be both unnecessary and illegal. The issue with this policy in Baltimore concerning 40mm rounds being allowed if police officers perceive any threat of injury is that it doesn’t require any degree of proportionality in the response. So it’s as you say, Brian: someone waves a leaflet at you and you think, “Oh, gosh, if that touches me, I might get a paper cut. I’d better start firing 40mm rounds at this person!” It’s crazy.

o’hara: So those are things you have to change. But I think that most of the cultural issues are not those types of things. There’s little things that we do that communicate disrespect. I saw it myself before I even started working in Minneapolis: Cops would show up to a crime scene. Now, sometimes if it’s an emergency, you park the cars however you can. But after the emergency’s long since over, one or two cars will be left still in the middle of the street, blocking traffic, while the cops are clearly just hanging out. And residents have to turn around in order to get where they’re going. Cops are doing stuff constantly that says “we don’t have to respect you.”


brooks: We’ve been discussing how to police violent crime. But many in the public are demanding answers to questions such as “What are you doing about homeless people sleeping in the metro station?” How do those types of concerns fit into our discussion?

meares: “Crime” has a political definition. There are a bunch of laws that say things like “you can’t sell loose cigarettes on a street corner.” That’s a crime. Maybe it shouldn’t be. Right? Eric Garner lost his life for doing that. When we talk about reducing crime in general—a category so broad that it includes both murder and selling loosies—we are making a mistake. We should focus on the thing that really matters: violence.

brooks: But isn’t it reasonable for people to want clean streets, less graffiti, no one harassing them or yelling at them on the subway?

meares: Of course. But in that case the question becomes one of whether the state’s response to street harassment and litter should be to send in armed officers who can spark a violent confrontation. Doing so requires a very narrow understanding of the state’s obligations to protect the public, including providing safety and health services, upholding sanitation standards, and operating schools. Many problems in society do not require a militarized response from the state.

On one level, this is what the left is arguing. But they sometimes take it too far. Their big mistake is thinking that problems of violence can be solved solely by the community—without involving the state at all. This is wrong. You absolutely need the state. That’s the only way solutions can be implemented on such a large scale. It’s just that the solution to a threat to public safety doesn’t always need to involve armed officers.

lopez: Still, it’s important to keep in mind that violent crime isn’t the only public-safety issue that people care about. In every city I go to, residents worry quite a lot about public disorder—people openly using illegal drugs, panhandlers on public transit, someone having a mental-health crisis right in front of you. And in many neighborhoods where they don’t have much of a problem with violence, they still feel very unsafe and upset because of public disorder.

brooks: Are you saying that George Kelling and James Wilson had it right when they wrote their influential article “Broken Windows,” which argued that the police should crack down on disorder as much as they do on serious crime?

lopez: No, this is not a defense of “Broken Windows” policing. I’m saying that in some ways disorder can affect a community’s sense of well-being as much as when a violent act happens every so often. We should be mindful of the effect that it has on people’s sense of safety—and even on their sense of how violent their community is.

baraka: This has a lot to do with the mass trauma that exists in cities, perpetuated by the media whenever something deadly happens. It trains people to feel that things are falling apart. When they see someone sleeping on the street or using illegal drugs, they remember the violent crime they just saw on the local news and think it will happen to them tomorrow. In this way, people are taught to believe that violence is happening on a regular basis everywhere around them—even in wealthy communities where it is exceedingly rare. The problem is: because the wealthy have a louder political voice, they get more attention when they express their fear. As a result, cities devote more police officers to preventing public disorder in high-income neighborhoods than to addressing violence in communities where residents are shot and murdered every day. City leaders must strike a balance when addressing public fears. If someone complains to me about homelessness in their neighborhood, I’m the mayor, so I should deal with it—but I can’t spare five police officers.

Source images: New York City © Jack Aiello/Alamy; microphone © Robert Kneschke/Alamy

Source images: New York City © Jack Aiello/Alamy; microphone © Robert Kneschke/Alamy

friedman: It is just odd that we use the police to deal with all these social problems. I often remind my students: People don’t call the police. They call 9-1-1, the number we tell them to call when they need help—and we send the police. The question we need to ask is why we send the police to wellness checks, domestic disputes, noise complaints, loose-animal issues, and minor traffic accidents. My students respond with the obvious question: “Isn’t it dangerous to not send a police officer, and aren’t there liability issues if we send someone else?” God bless lawyers, but the answer is no. In jurisdictions all over this country, tens of thousands of calls are now being responded to by people who have no weapon.

baraka: Police officers respond to mental-health crises in Newark and get stabbed. I would be nervous about sending somebody without an officer.

We have to look at what was going on before these 9-1-1 calls are made. You might have a woman who has been dealing with mental-health struggles all her life—and then at some point she stabs her child. Or a long-escalating domestic dispute that one day turns into murder. Millions of Americans in specific zip codes are dealing with these long-term issues but don’t have the infrastructure to address them until they become emergencies. We’re using armed police officers to cover up the failings of our system.

friedman: I wonder what we’d find if we ran the following experiment: we put a bunch of people on the street wearing brightly colored T-shirts and radios—clear presence of the state—but they aren’t armed or enforcing any laws in any way. Would situations de-escalate more often on their own? Would crime rates fall? Don’t get me wrong: of course the state needs the coercive authority of armed officers available to it at times—but do we know if it is needed as often as it is deployed?

sharkey: I don’t think we know with certainty. But the evidence we have suggests that people with authority who are out in public spaces reduce crime and reduce violence.

friedman: I believe that. But does authority mean guns?

sharkey: Not necessarily. There is solid evidence that even in business-improvement districts, where workers are out in public spaces cleaning up trash and monitoring activity, crime falls.

That said, we have a unique issue here in the United States: there are more guns than people in the country. And that makes it much more complicated, because other groups that might play a role in monitoring public spaces and keeping people safe are usually not equipped to deal with situations where a gun is involved.

There is hope, however. In the Nineties, we made considerable progress toward getting guns off the street. State laws got more restrictive, gun ownership fell, and gun deaths followed suit. It’s not like this is impossible. Unfortunately, all that progress has been reversed since 2016. Today the uncertainty about guns is in the background of every interaction. And it makes everyone less safe.


brooks: We’ve been talking about responding to many non-violent situations in a more public-health-oriented way. Does that mean we want to turn responsibility for them over to the civilian branches of city governments? So many of our cities have really dysfunctional public agencies across the board. Why should we have any confidence that if we start pouring money into them, they won’t fuck everything up themselves?

lopez: This is the fundamental problem. The American mindset is that we rely on policing, which in turn relies on coercion and violence, to address a broad host of social problems. We do this even though we know that policing disproportionately harms people of color and people living in poverty, and without demanding any evidence that this approach will actually solve problems or be effective at keeping communities safe. Yet the minute someone tries to introduce something more supportive of communities into the public-safety system—things like alternative first response, after-school programs, community mediation, or violence-intervention workers—some ask: “How do we know government won’t suck? How do you know that will work?” We don’t. And it might. But there is evidence that a broader public-safety system will work better than our current overreliance on policing, and it would be a lot more humane, so maybe we should try it.

brooks: I want to clarify something. The model being suggested in this discussion is one in which there are still police officers with guns. But in this model, we are, as much as possible, pairing them with people with a wide range of other skills in the recognition that probably the vast majority of the time, it doesn’t take somebody with a gun to solve the problems that lead to 9-1-1 calls. On the contrary, it usually takes people with other skills to solve problems. But Barry, you don’t want those people with guns anywhere? You just want to send social workers? Am I wrong about that?

friedman: Everybody is like, Oh my God, what’s going to happen when we don’t send police officers and there are guns everywhere? But the key word is everywhere. Where are you going to send somebody where there aren’t guns in this country? Everybody’s got guns.

baraka: But if there’s a shooting in progress—

friedman: Of course. I don’t disagree with that at all. But the vast number of 9-1-1 calls—maybe 95 percent or more—are not for violent crimes. And even when the call is about a violent crime, the perpetrator is almost always gone by the time the police arrive. It’s harder than you think to get force where it is needed when it is needed. Much harder.

baraka: Outreach workers, like homeless-outreach teams—sometimes they don’t want the police with them. They say, “Oh, we don’t need the police.” But they have the ability to get the police there because they’re part of a team. So if you have a team that’s made up of homeless-outreach workers and police officers, they can decide on their own whether they need the police there.

friedman: That’s the learning part. The thing that would be a real disappointment, if not a disaster, would be to nip in the bud this thing that over time may prove to solve so many problems simply because we’re afraid of it, because we’re struggling to know how to fund it, because it’s unfamiliar to us. The folks who do this work will tell you that they respond to tons of calls and nobody gets hurt. We don’t know precisely why this is—we need to learn. Are the dispatchers geniuses at triaging calls? Are the alternative responders magicians at avoiding violence? Does the presence of the police alone escalate tensions? We just don’t know, and we seriously need to study this and learn.

brooks: I remember the famous quip made by James Mattis, back when he was the general in charge of U.S. Central Command, before he was Trump’s secretary of defense. Congress was holding hearings on U.S. foreign aid—that’s the non-military assistance we give to other countries, like food aid, medical help, economic-development funds, and agricultural subsidies. Congress is always trying to cut that because they can’t see why it matters. Mattis was testifying on behalf of expanding this budget. And to a skeptical member of Congress, he said—I don’t remember his exact words, but it was something along the lines of “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

baraka: That’s right.

brooks: Bottom line, if you won’t invest in all these other services, you’re going to end up with more violence, and you’re going to be caught in that cycle forever and ever. What’s your take on this, Brian? You’re out there every day.

o’hara: One issue is that no one is able to share information between all these different systems that should be working together. I’ll give you one example of a disaster. There is a woman from one of the Minneapolis suburbs who was the victim of domestic violence. She moved into the city so she could live in a homeless shelter. Her nine-year-old son is autistic. Since August, I think, we had ten or twelve interactions with him, because he runs away and has become increasingly violent. In the last one, he tried to stab a police officer. It was a bad situation. Thankfully no one was hurt. We have social workers in the precincts who work for Hennepin County, and the county is supposed to provide all this help and everything else. Even after I got involved personally, it still took weeks to get some help. It’s crazy how bad the rest of the system is. It’s a crisis. It is an emergency. Could you imagine if we shot an autistic child trying to stab a cop? We can’t get help in these situations. I think people just don’t understand how dysfunctional the rest of the system is.

brooks: Let’s say we fix the issues with the system. Let’s say we manage to create these efficient, responsive, fair, and effective city agencies to address mental-health issues and so on. These reforms would still have to overcome one last cultural problem: except on the far left, most Americans, including many liberals, are very quick to demand cops, more cops.

I saw it in my time as a reserve police officer. You’d be in some of the poorest communities of D.C., and people would be saying things like “I need you to take my daughter to jail to teach her a lesson because she’s being disrespectful to me.” We’d say, “Well, ma’am, your daughter didn’t commit a crime. We’re not going to take her to jail.” As a society, despite all our critiques of policing, we very quickly fall back on thinking, “Get some cops over here.”

meares: It’s a knee-jerk response, because the police have just always been there. America hasn’t ever had a considered discussion about what they should be doing. What the police do has grown into a set of informal agreements, doing the bidding of people who are in power. Remember what Barry said earlier: people are taught that when they have a problem they should call a number. In response to that call, we send an armed emergency responder, even when the problem is a child selling water bottles on the street, or a person observing a black man they don’t know watering their neighbor’s lawn, or a student sleeping in a dorm’s common room—I could go on and on.

baraka: There is no way that we can fix policing without fixing America. The institution of policing is really America itself, this country that is still struggling to deal with race and class and inequity. You can’t divorce the police from that. And so the flaws the country has, the police will display in a more virulent way because they have guns and they’re in people’s faces. So it becomes that much more dangerous and more urgent for us to fix, because they take people’s lives. They have the freedom to take people’s lives and to take their freedom away. We’re talking about violence because it’s scary. It’s scary for all of the world and for America to see, and it kind of desensitizes people and pushes people into corners so that the smallest problems get very big because people are being murdered on the four o’clock news or the six o’clock news or the eleven o’clock news. That’s horrifying. But imagine how horrifying it is to the person who actually lives in that neighborhood every single day.

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April 2024

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