Will rising crime rates sink the push for police reform?

·Senior Editor
·7 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 and the worldwide protest movement it inspired, there were signs that comprehensive police reform was possible in the United States. The public expressed strong support, reform-minded lawmakers signaled major changes in big cities, and a bipartisan deal in Congress seemed possible.

Those reform efforts have largely stalled, however. Cities have backed off their plans to transform their police departments. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act has stalled in the Senate. Public support for the Black Lives Matter movement has dipped. Meanwhile, the country has experienced an unprecedented spike in violent crime over the past year, which some experts say could shift political winds away from police reform.

Homicides increased somewhere between 25 percent and nearly 40 percent last year, the largest year-over-year jump on record. That trend has shown no sign of reversing in the first few months of 2021. Crime was one of the defining issues in American elections for decades, but a dramatic decline in the U.S. murder rate since the early 1990s has allowed other topics to move to the center of debate. With violence once again on the rise, crime has reemerged as one of the most important issues to voters. In a recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll, half of Americans said violent crime was a “very big problem,” a higher percentage than those who said the same about COVID-19.

Why there’s debate

In the eyes of many political analysts, the recent spike in violent crime poses a major challenge to police reform efforts. As voters become more fearful of crime in their communities, their willingness to trust in new methods of violence prevention that rely less on law enforcement may erode, some argue. Republicans have also shown they are primed to paint Democrats as “soft on crime” in upcoming elections — a strategy that proved very effective for them during the 1980s and ’90s. Experts say these pressures could lead sitting lawmakers to temper their plans for systemic changes, make GOP lawmakers even less likely to sign on to reform bills, and lead to more election wins for candidates who oppose reform.

Advocates, on the other hand, are hopeful that reform is still possible. They argue that the country’s views on police have changed substantially in recent decades and GOP tactics that worked during the Reagan era are likely to fall flat today. As evidence, they point to reform-minded Democrats like New Mexico House candidate Melanie Stansbury and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who both won recent elections by large margins against anti-reform rivals.

Others make the case that rising crime actually bolsters the argument for reform, since it shows that policing in its current form can’t keep violence under control. They argue that unlike in previous decades, the public now has a clear understanding of alternative violence prevention strategies that can keep communities safe without relying on law enforcement.

What’s next

Congressional Democrats and Republicans are reportedly close to reaching a bipartisan deal on a new police reform bill after a year of stalled talks. Any compromise they reach, however, would need to find a balance that satisfies both the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and at least 10 GOP senators.

Perspectives

Voters see through Republican attempts to blame police reform for rising crime

“Violent crime typically shoots up when economic devastation and massive, sustained national trauma occurs. I think one reason many of the current attacks on police reform don’t have as much purchase as they could’ve is [because] a normal person can tell what happened since March 2020.” — Daily Beast reporter Asawin Suebsaeng

If crime keeps rising, the public will reject efforts to reform the police

“It’s essential that we strive to eliminate bad actors in policing and the excessive use of force. At the same time, they must also devise strategies to keep our streets and neighborhoods free of violent crime. [Democrats] will surely benefit if they can strike the right balance. If they don’t, ambitious Republicans will run a reboot of the 1960-era ‘law and order’ campaign — and will probably see it work just as well today.” — Henry Olsen, Washington Post

Non-police crime reduction strategies are more proven than they were in past decades

“The good news is that we know a lot more today about how to control violent crime than we did at the start of the prison-building boom in the 1970s. Over the years, local governments, nonprofits and community-led organizations have found effective ways to intervene.” — Adam Gelb, USA Today

Police reform is still possible, but it needs to happen soon

“For now at least, public opinion appears to be on the side of change. That could mean Biden and the Democrats have a window of opportunity to act. ... One lesson from last summer, though, is that that chance may not last forever.” — Eric Lutz, Vanity Fair

Reform is in full swing at the local level

“People are looking at federal legislation which hasn’t passed. They’re looking for presidential leadership. And we’ve just had a transition. They’re looking for something that deals with it and a full national level. And when we’re looking there, it doesn’t look like what we want to see. That said, there are lots of pockets, communities, organizers around the country that have done really remarkable things.” — Center for Policing Equity CEO Phillip Atiba Goff to PBS NewsHour

Rising crime actually bolsters the argument for alternatives to policing

“If there was ever a moment to justify defunding the police, this would be it. This is an institution that annually requests (and is given) millions of dollars in funding increases — yet the ever-higher costs haven’t produced better results.” — Ernest Owens, Philadelphia Magazine

‘Soft on crime’ attacks may not be as effective as they used to be

“It’s still too soon to tell what exactly the broader political impact of the homicide spike will be. Republicans have latched on to the possibility of using it against Democrats in next year’s midterm elections. Whether law and order politics will have the same electoral valence as they did in the 1980s and 1990s remains to be seen.” — Matt Ford, New Republic

Crime could cost Democrats their control of Congress in 2022

“A rise in violent crime is endangering slim Democratic congressional majorities more than a year out from the midterm elections and threatening to revive ‘law and order’ as a major campaign issue for Republicans for the first time since the 1990s.” — W. James Antle III, Washington Examiner

Crime makes voters less likely to support reform-minded candidates

“Violent crime can lead to more punitive, authoritarian and often racist policies, with consequences that shape communities decades later. ... If these numbers keep rising, they could end any chance we have of building a new approach to safety, and possibly carry Donald Trump — or someone like him — back to the presidency in 2024.” — Ezra Klein, New York Times

‘Defund the police’ will sink reform efforts unless it’s replaced by a better message

“If the ‘defund’ language is not replaced with a better message, and crime continues to climb, Democrats will pay a steep price. Very few Americans, including African Americans who are most often victimized by overly aggressive police, want to live without police.” — Mona Charen, Chicago Sun-Times

Progressives’ grand plans for systemic reforms weren’t ever going to happen anyway

“The problem that Democrats have is that they have accepted — and celebrated — the people making a comprehensive case against the police as systematically racist. This argument doesn’t naturally allow for nuance. In fact, it logically entails calling for fewer cops and less police funding, an agenda that will be hard to sell to most people in the best of circumstances but is toxic in an environment of rising crime.” — Rich Lowry, National Review

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