Bernie Sanders is right, in the way that he sometimes can be: His ideology has led him to the opposite of a trendy conclusion. In an interview with The New Yorker published this week, he was characteristically blunt when asked about the current calls to abolish or defund the police. “Anyone who thinks that we should abolish all police departments in America, I don’t agree” he said.
(Sanders being Sanders, he went on to argue that more spending on health care, including mental health, should be part of the police-reform agenda, as a way of relieving some of the burden placed on police officers whose responsibilities are constantly expanding. He may be on to something there.)
Of course, a whole rash of reforms short of abolishing police departments have been bandied about in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and what’s so odd about some of them is that they’ve already been implemented. Bill de Blasio has indicated support for new legislation that would prohibit police from using chokeholds during their work. But the NYPD Patrol Guide has prohibited chokeholds for 20 years; in reports after the death of Eric Garner it was found that the prohibition simply hadn’t been enforced.
Likewise, talk of new efforts at improving police–community relations in New York often ignores the community-policing agenda the city implemented in 2018, which was arguably the largest shift in police tactics since CompStat. It’s an effort fully in line with the ethos of Sir Robert Peel, the founding father of modern policing, which Kevin D. Williamson has championed on this site. The NYPD has been making real efforts to improve communication between residents and the cops on their beat.
In fact, lots of the big metropolitan police forces have undergone major reforms. Historically, the Los Angeles Police Department was understaffed compared to the population and geography of the territory it policed, and had a more military character. In the two decades after the 1992 riots, the force was expanded, and its performance began winning the approval of overwhelming majorities of African-American and Latino Angelenos. Notably, in New York and Los Angeles, it was William J. Bratton, a vocal disciple of Peel’s system of policing by consent, who spearheaded the push for reforms.
Sanders hits the nail on the head when he champions more training for police, and an emphasis on creating more-professional forces. Critics of police note that the work doesn’t appear very dangerous when you look at the national statistics on workplace-related fatalities. But those statistics tend to obscure the danger faced by cops in major metropolitan areas; the greater number of officers in safer, more rural areas nationwide skews the results. The average policeman nationwide earns $65,000 a year with good benefits. Metropolitan police earn a bit more. But the hazards of the job in big cities are great, and not confined to police work itself; policemen in major metros have seen surges in suicides in recent years. Police work often takes a real toll on officers’ families, and it occasionally comes with political hazards that are not easy to anticipate. Pay increases would help major metropolitan departments attract more applicants and allow them to be more discriminating in their hiring choices, boosting the intelligence, competence, and character of their forces.
There are good arguments for changing the way policing works in America. There’s something to be said for “unbundling” some police duties and dedicating more resources to helping the mentally ill and addressing other social pathologies as Sanders proposes, though there will always be a role for police in confronting those problems. There are other proposals for changing the training that police officers receive. Those should be considered as well. But one of the biggest reasons that police are involved in fewer violent incidents now than they were in decades past is the work of people such as Bratton. Police departments have seen their budgets and manpower grow immensely, and have gotten much better at preventing crime as a result. The answer isn’t to defund them.