Crime in America is on the rise. With viral videos of criminals openly looting stores in San Francisco and brutally mauling subway passengers in New York, major cities have been overrun with a post-pandemic spike in violence relative to pre-pandemic levels. As a native Californian, I expected to experience less crime in suburban Ann Arbor, but even that view was quickly shattered after witnessing the rapid rise in violent crime across the city.
While crime is typically correlated with local factors, such as the presence, or lack, of homeless and mental health facilities, the recent spike that has impacted many major cities is inarguably a national problem. If we hope to return to the low crime rates that Americans have experienced over the past two decades, Congress and local district attorneys must immediately take action to restore safety to our communities.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed his now infamous Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which implemented a mandatory “three strikes” life sentence for repeat offenders, hired 100,000 new officers and expanded funding for prisons. While its policies have today become a polarizing issue, at the time, the bill garnered bipartisan support. Winning the votes of 95 senators, the legislation was a strong response to a homicide rate that had peaked at 9.8 murders per 100,000 people just three years earlier.
However, the legacy of the bill has been complicated. While the period after its passage saw dramatic declines in homicide and violent crime rates, it also brought with it a drastic spike in incarceration rates, particularly with regard to nonviolent drug offenses, leading many Democrats involved in drafting the original bill, including President Biden, to retract their support for it. Some major critiques include policies that expanded the death penalty to 60 new crimes and offered states grants for building new prisons. The more stringent drug usage charges, which have been a leading factor in America’s incarceration rates increasing from 382 to 670 per 100,000 individuals, have been of particular concern due to their disproportionate enforcement by racial groups. Ultimately, while Clinton’s bill did achieve its desired effect of lowering violent crime rates, its unintended consequences have sparked movements in support of prison and sentencing reform.
Following relative stability in violent crime for the two decades after Clinton’s crackdown, the past two years have seen a nationwide rise in several forms of crimes, particularly concentrated in major cities. Although there are many factors involved, perhaps the most significant has been a dramatic changes in police funding and prosecutorial policies following the murder of George Floyd. The uproar following his death was largely justified, with officers today 53% more likely to use nonlethal force and over 3 times more likely to use lethal force against African Americans than Whites. With this disparity remaining consistent over the past several years, there is clearly a need for change. Though his death was critical in exposing many of the historic issues associated with the disproportionately violent policing techniques used against minorities, however, many Democrats reacted too forcefully by calling to “defund the police” instead of funding the retraining of officers.
Serving as a rallying cry for liberal politicians nationwide, over 20 major cities –– including San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Seattle –– made significant cuts to their officer budgets. The impact of the messaging went beyond budget cuts, with district attorneys such as San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin (D) dramatically altering their prosecutorial policies by prosecuting theft under $950 as a misdemeanor, ultimately achieving lower prosecution and conviction rates for theft.
Many are clearly fed up with these poorly-thought-out new policies, including Black Americans whose neighborhoods are often disproportionately impacted by crime. In fact, between 2020 and 2021, the share of Black adults who supported cutting police funding fell 19 percentage points, a clear indication of the decreasing support for such measures. Additionally, Black and Hispanic Democrats are now more likely than White Democrats to support expanding police funding, with almost 40% of both demographics indicating their desire to do so.
After violent crime nationwide increased by the highest rate in a century, with many blaming the policies of left-wing politicians, several Democrats are now scrambling to walk back their statements. In his 2022 State of the Union address, President Biden, who admittedly never supported defunding the police, explicitly stated his opposition to doing so, and other congressional Democratic leaders have followed suit. In many instances, those who refuse to shift away from their “soft on crime” approaches are paying a heavy toll, including in San Francisco, where Boudin is facing a bipartisan recall effort this June.
With the nation’s sentiment shifting, how should Congress and local officials move forward with reducing crime while fixing broken aspects of our policing system? One possible approach can be found in New York, where Mayor Eric Adams –– a former officer himself –– has protected the police department from the 3% budget cuts he made to other city departments, reversed his predecessor’s decision to dismantle the plainclothes division of the NYPD and deployed more officers on the streets. By accompanying these policies with a commitment to boost community policing strategies designed to restore institutional trust and better understand local needs, Adams is ambitiously attempting to both tackle crime and modernize policing.
Though it remains too early to observe the results from Adams’ policies, indications of their effects can be found in similar programs carried out in other agencies. A recent study conducted by the Louisville police department demonstrated that just eight hours of de-escalation training led to 26% fewer civilian complaints, 28% fewer use-of-force incidents and 36% fewer officer injuries. Furthermore, a New Haven study found that community policing tactics enhanced citizens’ willingness to cooperate with police, improved attitudes towards law enforcement and even increased support for higher police budgets. Through these tactics and others that emphasize modernizing departments without dismantling them, we can make strides towards improving a flawed, but fixable system.
While many people have been consumed by rage towards officers and a burning desire to tear down the system, this divisiveness only complicates the passage of meaningful legislation to improve policing outcomes. I believe many officers are good people hoping to keep their communities safe, so demonizing police and increasing leniency toward criminals is certainly not an effective way to combat systemic issues. Instead, by increasing funding for departments to improve training and teach officers to handle difficult scenarios in nonviolent ways, we can help the police perform their jobs more effectively. Ultimately, increasing police funding will allow cities to restructure their departments, increasing resources for community policing and comprehensively retraining officers in de-escalation tactics. By ensuring new funding is spent in these ways, we can strive to reduce crime and mitigate the effects that prior police protocols have had on minority communities.
Nikhil Sharma is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.