Did “defund the police” lead to an increase in murder? Almost certainly not

In fact, hardly any cities have "defunded" cops — the troubling spike in homicide is probably pandemic-related

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published February 1, 2021 6:00AM (EST)

A protester carries a sign that reads "Defund The Police" during the Black Women Matter "Say Her Name" march on July 3, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. Protests continue around the country after the death of African Americans while in police custody. (Eze Amos/Getty Images)
A protester carries a sign that reads "Defund The Police" during the Black Women Matter "Say Her Name" march on July 3, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. Protests continue around the country after the death of African Americans while in police custody. (Eze Amos/Getty Images)

Former President Donald Trump, a variety of Republican and Democratic lawmakers, and police unions have spent so many months blaming protesters' calls to shift city budgets away from police for the widespread increase in homicides that it has become conventional wisdom. That doesn't mean it's true. In fact, data shows that Republican-led cities and even those that increased police budgets have experienced similar spikes.

Trump and countless Republican candidates seized on Black Lives Matter protesters' calls to "defund the police," or to shift police funding toward social programs to address the root causes of crime like poverty and mental illness, to link them to violent crime increases that began before the summer protests following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. But data compiled by crime analyst Jeff Asher from 51 cities shows that the murder rate in Democratic-led cities increased 36.2% through the fall, while the murder rate in Republican-led cities spiked by a virtually identical 35.6%.

Homicides increased by 42% during the summer and 34% during the fall in 28 major cities analyzed by Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of St. Louis-Missouri, for the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice. Another analysis by the Police Executive Research Forum found that 80% of the 70 largest U.S. cities experienced significant spikes in homicides, including an increase of 41% from 2019 in New York City, 85% in Minneapolis, 68% in Portland, 79% in Louisville and 38% in Atlanta, even as other types of crime fell.

Homicides were already on the rise by the time protests erupted in late May. A preliminary FBI report found that homicides were up by about 15% between January and June. A report from the Council on Criminal Justice showed that homicides were up 25% in 27 major cities between April and June from the previous three years. The latter report did find a brief spike in homicides immediately following the protests, as officers pulled back patrols or were reassigned to police protests, took extended leave or early retirement, and solved far fewer crimes. But that was not a significant factor overall, ultimately amounting to "fewer than one additional death in each [of the cities tracked]" per day, with most of the increase taking place in Chicago, wrote Weihua Li, a data fellow at The Marshall Project. In fact, Chicago had increased its police budget in eight consecutive years ahead of the spike and has nearly tripled its per capita police spending over the last six decades. Homicides remained far higher than in the past even after protests died down by the fall.

It's true murders spiked around the time the protests peaked in late May and early June, but in an interview, Rosenfeld said, "The increase in violence has been much greater than could possibly be explained by violence by the protesters." Only 7% of the roughly 10,600 demonstrations between late May and late August involved violence, which also includes incidents of looting and vandalism, according to an analysis by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project and the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University

Rosenfeld said the coronavirus pandemic, on the other hand, has had a "very significant" impact on policing. Many officers have been sidelined due to quarantine requirements and social distancing restrictions. So protests likely contributed to the spikes in the sense that cities pulled officers and resources from other parts of the city to patrol the demonstrations.

"That reduces the kind of so-called smart policing that research shows can help keep violence in check and to reduce it," Rosenfeld said. "So you have the impact of COVID on policing, in particular on police presence, and police activity in communities hard hit by the uptick in violence." The fallout from the Floyd killing may also have sown more distrust of police in communities where the relationship between residents and law enforcement was already tense. If that relationship "deteriorates significantly, that simply widens the space for street justice to take hold," Rosenfeld said. "So the combination of diminished police presence, activity of the kind that can reduce violence, and diminished so-called police legitimacy — that can be a deadly combination."

Other criminal justice experts also disputed the increasingly widespread conception that calls to defund the police resulted in large murder increases.

"I have not seen any analysis that has found a causal link between movements to change police funding and homicide rates in major cities," David Abrams, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an email, noting that the timing also corresponded with changes in policing as well as cities lifting stay-at-home orders.

"The problem is that these time horizons are way too short to make any kind of reliable claims," said Alex Vitale, a sociologist at Brooklyn College and the author of "The End of Policing." "Crime rates are subject to all kinds of short-term blips and even trying to do something comparative at this stage is really premature."

Beyond the protests, many critics of the "defund the police" movement have tried to paint a straight line from police budget cuts in certain cities to the rise in murders. But few cities have actually cut their police budgets to any significant degree. The Minneapolis City Council vowed to abolish the city's police force amid the protests, but ultimately cut just $8 million from the budget while leaving the same number of cops on the street. Despite nonstop fear-mongering from the New York police union after Mayor Bill de Blasio touted what he described as a $1 billion police budget cut, the move was largely criticized by activists for moving certain departments from the NYPD to other agencies. Only about a dozen of the roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. had reduced their police budgets by the fall. And many of the cities that did cut police budgets blamed revenue shortfalls caused by the coronavirus pandemic rather than demands from demonstrators. The refusal of Trump and Senate Republicans to include any aid to state and local governments in the most recent round of coronavirus relief is likely to force more cities to slash police spending as they face massive budget shortfalls over the next two years.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, and Gregg Sofer, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, recently blamed the city of Austin's decision to cut police spending by about $20 million — and ultimately reduce the police budget by about 30% by moving certain departments to other agencies — for a more than 50% spike in murders over last year. Abbott even threatened a state takeover of the city's police in response. 

Texas Tribune reporter Jolie McCullough pointed out that the uptick in Austin started "long before any cuts were on the table." Unlike Austin, Fort Worth slightly increased its police budget — but saw an even larger 60% jump in homicides.

Rosenfeld said Abbott's threat was "groundless" and politically motivated.

"It's certainly not limited to cities that have begun to 'defund' their police departments," he said. "That surge is very, very widespread and involves cities whose mayors are different political affiliations and cities where the defund movement has been quite pronounced, and other places where it's been much less pronounced. I don't think there's a connection between the surge in violence and the calls to defund the police."

There are many reasons homicides might be spiking. The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in business shutdowns, school closures, rampant unemployment and poverty, and increased stress. It has also, to a significant degree, trapped domestic violence survivors in their homes.

"You have what some people refer to as the COVID effect on people's lives," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. "They're more prone to let a small thing get out of hand, especially if they have a gun. Gang members are still engaging with each other … people engaging in robberies of other drug dealers that go bad and they shoot one another. There's a lot of different explanations. I don't buy into any one of them as much as a combination of factors."

The coronavirus also resulted in widespread efforts to free people from overcrowded prisons, has upended court proceedings, and has reduced the number of proactive police stops.

While Republicans have been quick to blame protesters for the rise in homicides, none have mentioned the record 39 million guns sold this year.

"One thing that we're looking at is guns," Wexler said. "Why are more people getting guns, carrying guns, using guns? The murders that are increasing across the cities are primarily the result of someone shooting someone else … It's a combination of factors that center around the fact that a lot more people today appear to be carrying guns than ever before."

Rosenfeld noted that the guns on the streets are also deadlier than the ones in the past.

"We may simply have more guns on the street, and more guns may end in more killing. … It's quite clear that the guns that are out on the street are simply more lethal than those we've seen on the streets in the past," he said. "They are semi-automatic or even automatic-type weapons that enable the shooter to get off multiple rounds within seconds. They often have magazines or clips that will contain, say, 30 rounds. That means someone involved in a shooting can generate a great deal more firepower per unit of time than in the past. That will generate more deaths from gun assaults, and that could be one reason we've seen a bigger increase in homicides than we've seen, for example, in non-fatal gun assaults."

One question that has perplexed criminologists is why homicides are up when other types of crime, including non-lethal assaults, are down.

"Homicide tends to be an emotional crime. I would link it to frustration regarding the pandemic, the tense political climate, and the fact that people are tired and frustrated, and emotions are on edge," said Lorenzo Boyd, a longtime former police officer and director of the Center for Advanced Policing at the University of New Haven, adding that he doesn't see a "relationship between increased homicides and the protests."

"When people are emotional, they tend to make emotional decisions," Boyd added. "The protests are not the issue, but rather indicative of larger issues in society. Do not let anyone do a sleight-of-hand and refocus the attention away from the underlying issues in society. If we fix many of the issues in the [criminal justice] system, then the protests will no longer be needed."

Boyd has argued that police officers are primarily investigators rather than crime-stoppers.

"Police as currently instituted do not affect crime rates," he told CNN. "What they do affect are investigations and arrests after the crime."

A 2019 analysis by The Marshall Project and USA Today showed that raw numbers of police officers have no significant effect on crime trends. Violent crime continued to drop between 2014 and 2019 even as the number of police officers per 1,000 residents declined.

Another analysis by Brandon Beck, a professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, and Aya Gruber, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School, found that between 1990 and 2017 the average police budget increased by 59%, an aggregate budget increase of over $17 billion per year, even as violent crime "precipitously declined" by 56%.

Rosenfeld and Wexler argued that police function was a larger factor than raw numbers of cops. Both agreed that there is no reason for police to be first responders to calls relating to homelessness, substance abuse or mental health. They both called for cities to focus on accountability for police misconduct. Wexler said police officers should be required to wear body cameras.

Wexler, who opposes efforts to "defund" the police, said that cutting budgets amid the homicide spike was "counterintuitive" and "almost seems punitive rather than helpful." If "we want to fix something, we have to invest in it," he said.

"You have to hire a new generation that reflects the values that you want in a department. You have to get them the right training, the right equipment," he argued. The "defund" movement, he suggested, "will mean reducing the hiring of new cops into the future. IF you're trying to infuse the department with a new kind of recruit, you're trying to hire from all walks of life — if that process gets slowed down it slows down the effort to reform policing. No good can come from cutting a police budget unless you're making some other investment in some other institution."

Proponents of shifting city funding away from police departments say it is equally important to focus on where the funding would be redirected.

The National Network for Safe Communities credited its Group Violence Intervention model, which relies on partnerships between communities, police and social service programs to reach out to street gangs, for helping reduce shootings in cities like Boston by 27% in 2018.

An analysis by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health also credited the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Cure Violence program, which uses "violence interrupters" to reach out to street gangs, with helping to reduce shootings and killings in cities like Baltimore by more than 34%.

But Cure Violence "has a mixed track record," with good success in some communities but "less so in others," Rosenfeld said. "I understand the appeal of Cure Violence to some activists, the idea that it's community-based and has nothing to do with the police," he continued. "I'm not suggesting that approach be abandoned. But on a cost-benefit basis, it would not be my favorite." He pointed instead to Oakland, California's Ceasefire violence-reduction strategy.

"At the heart of that program was so-called focused deterrence," Rosenfeld explained. "This is a program that involves a combination of community actors, social service providers in particular, and criminal justice representatives, including police, the local prosecutor, the juvenile justice officials, the federal prosecutor, what have you. This approach focuses on those in the community who are most at risk of becoming the next victim of violence, and very typically they're also at the highest risk to become the next offender. It focuses on people's risk of victimization, uses that as an opening in meetings with those folks.

"That's not a cure-all, but it has been shown to be effective. And by the way, the record is quite a bit less mixed than for Cure Violence." He added that the focused-deterrence approach is "far less expensive than Cure Violence," noting that a recent Cure Violence program targeted three specific locations in St. Louis at a cost of $7 million while "focused deterrence can be carried out throughout the city continuously at a fraction of the cost."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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