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America’s Shrinking Police Forces

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America’s Shrinking Police Forces

10 Blocks podcast November 25, 2020
Public safety

Charles Fain Lehman joins Brian Anderson to discuss the nationwide crisis of police recruitment and retention, the strong link between the size of a police force and the local crime rate, and policy changes that could stop the downward spiral.

Lehman recently joined the Manhattan Institute as an adjunct fellow, working with its new Policing and Public Safety Initiative. His latest article for City Journal is “Police Departments on the Brink.”

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Charles Fain Lehman, who's written several incisive City Journal pieces this year, and I'm happy to say is now a new adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Charles will be writing more for CJ and working with the Institute's new policing and public safety initiative. And he's a staff writer with the Washington Free Beacon, where he covers a broad range of domestic policy issues. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlesFLehman.

Charles, thanks very much for joining us.

Charles Fain Lehman: Thanks for having me on Brian.

Brian Anderson: Your latest piece for City Journal focuses on a growing crisis that you've been writing about for a while now. And that's this fact that across America police officers seem to be quitting their departments in record numbers. That article, which we call Police Departments on the Brink, explains what's happening with these forces in a number of big cities and even small towns across the country. Could you go into some of the details of what you found when you looked into this?

Charles Fain Lehman: Yeah, absolutely. I think it really is the case that this is a comprehensive phenomenon. On the one hand, I looked at the 50 biggest cities in the United States, and I found that roughly half of them, either police chiefs or officers had resigned or retired in the past a year. On the other hand, it's also localized to very small towns, so the city council in Norman, Oklahoma, voted to defund their police department and forcing the officers to retire, majority of the force is out in Knightstown, Indiana. These are tiny, tiny places. So really it is from the biggest cities in the United States to the smallest little towns, cops are finding themselves under enormous unprecedented pressure and the really necessary consequence of that change in dynamic is that the average cop is more likely to quit their job, therefore more cops are leaving their jobs. They're retiring, they're taking sick leave. They're resigning altogether. They're departing for other more hospitable environments.

Brian Anderson: So it's really in your view, the kind of current climate in 2020 that is demoralizing police forces.

Charles Fain Lehman: Yeah, my argument is twofold. On the one hand, there's a long standing problem where if you look at the number of cops per capita it rose steadily through the early 1990s when the federal government put a lot of money into police hiring as part of cutting back on crime in the United States.

It plateaus at a relatively high level, and then around the Great Recession, I suspect largely because of the fiscal austerity that that necessitated, policing numbers began to decline and then they continued to decline even after the recovery takes effect, and this partially a function of the local politics, but also I think a function of a series of anti-police moments, first in 2015 with the Ferguson associated protests and now again, this past summer. It is both of the factors, the two factors at play there. One being the lack of funding for police, limits imposed by the actors that fund police, and the other one being public hostility to police, which obviously has become more and more of an issue, and hostility to police from lawmakers as well. I think both culturally and financially police are under more pressure than they have been in decades and that takes a real toll.

Brian Anderson: The worry here is, of course, that the shrinking of police departments is going to have negative implications for public safety, especially in poor communities. You've got cities like Minneapolis, which I'm sure you're aware, is seeing a pretty significant spike in violent crimes since the George Floyd incident this summer and the subsequent riots and defund efforts by the city council. While that turmoil was going on the city's police chief has reported, I think, his department is down about 150 officers from the beginning of the year, part due to retirements, medical leave. And we're starting to see this in New York too, as Raf Mangual and Nicole Gelinas have been reporting for City Journal. What do we know from a criminological perspective about the size of a city's police force or town's police force and crime rates?

Charles Fain Lehman: What we noticed, very practically, is that there's a strong relationship between the number of police officers and the crime level. So for example, we know that the introduction of federal funding for police at a couple of different points, then the ensuing increase in police populations consistently drives down the crime rate. And we can say that the obverse is almost certainly true, that if you cut funding for the police, and if you reduce the number of police officers out on the street, then there will be almost certainly an increase in the crime rate. That's for a couple of reasons. One is that there'll be fewer resources to go around. So I've looked at Minneapolis and there's very clearly been withdrawal by the police, if you look at the number of stop, question and frisk reports the department publishes, there was a substantial drop off in the middle of the protests.

And there's a very simple numerical reason for that, which is that if there are fewer cops and there are more demands on the cops, then the ability of cops to be in a number of pla... The number of places cops can be in diminishes. So, that's half the equation. The other half of the equation is, as the number of police officer's decline, there can be a vicious cycle where, because there are more cops being asked to do the same amount or more work, they're more likely to be stressed out, more likely to retire. There might be a negative selection effect where the kind of cop who wants to stay is not necessarily the kind of cop you want to stay. And the cumulative effect is that the marginal cop will be more likely to be the cop who engages in a police misconduct, engages in unjustifiable use of force. And that will increase public hostility of police further, which will further the vicious cycle.

Brian Anderson: So you really do create a kind of downward spiral in officer quality potentially here. Would that also imply a lower caliber of recruit perhaps coming into the force?

Charles Fain Lehman: Yeah. And that's also a long standing problem. The police executive research forum put out a report, I think two years ago at this point, where they said that the popularity of policing is just one of many factors that's challenging bringing in new cops. Somebody, a friend of mine reached out to me after this article was published and said his brother's 24, 25, something like that, and has really has lost friends because he's a police officer and it's no longer a respectable thing to do among his particular age cohort. That's going to reduce people's desire to become a cop. Lots of other factors are too. Until the pandemic, we had a very tight labor market. People were less likely to become cops because comparatively, they can get better jobs elsewhere. That's a longstanding issue. The question of educational level, as American education polarized, people who are highly educated are less likely to become cops, but policing is going to demand more education over time because it's more technical or technologically intensive phenomenon.

So there are lots of factors, which I think are driving a long-term decline in police recruitment. If you ask police executives, they'll basically say, "Yeah, we've got big problems recruiting people." And it's very clearly the case that while the cultural stuff is one part of a bigger issue, it's a very vital part. It's clearly the most visible part, which means from a signaling perspective to potential recruits, it's [inaudible 00:08:04] at the front of their mind is, if I become a cop and something goes wrong, are people are going to stand up for me, or am I going to be tarred and feather by the media?

Brian Anderson: The obvious question is how do you arrest this downward spiral, improve police recruitment, slow down the number of cops and the forces, what can can be done from a policy standpoint or from a cultural standpoint, to turn this around because the implications are going to be very worrisome for cities in particular?

Charles Fain Lehman: My view has been consistently that if you want, and even then with better outcomes, if you want less crime or you want whatever substantive reforms to the police you might propose, if you want to get there, then the first thing you have to do is be willing to spend more on policing. And the reason for that is, A, we simply know that competitive civil service positions require good funding. The canonical example is Singapore, where top-level executives in the government pay millions of dollars because they want to be competitive with the best CEOs and country in the world. But the principle extends down to the lower echelons of the civil service. If you want to bring in the guys who have experience and competency, if you want to make it worthwhile for people who are in it for the right reasons then you need to make policing an attractive role.

And then that also, as I said, is related to the extent that the reforms that people are interested obtaining. If you want to extract reforms from a local police union, that almost always means reducing job protections for officers. And if you want to do that, then you have to have some trade-off, you can't just... Part of the problem of the quote-unquote "defund the police movement" is that it's essentially punitive in its policy theory. It's saying, we don't like what cops are doing is we're going to punish them by taking away money. And it's like, no, you have to change the incentive structure. And one way to do that is to [inaudible 00:10:09], and I don't necessarily agree with this, but if that was what we wanted to do, you could reduce job protection of cops, but you have to make a trade, you'd be willing to pay them more, you have to compensate them better.

And I think there are lots of policy lovers that are available to do that. To his credit, Joe Biden has been actually pretty good on this topic. The cops' office that I was talking about earlier that caused the spike in police hiring in the nineties is part of the violent crime b... The [inaudible 00:10:42] crime bill in 1994, which gets, in my opinion, wrongly attacked. And he said he wants to spend more money on cops. The Trump administration was, I think, less good on this. And there was some push to reduce, defund the cop's office. And that was an issue. But broadly speaking, I would like to believe that spend more federal money on cops and federalize more of the costs of policing is a first obvious step to keeping this fundamentally important social role attractive and competitive for the sort of people that we want to hire to it. If there are things the government should spend money on, it's like keeping us safe, and this is the way that you keep us safe. And so that's the first step to ensuring that that's true going forward.

Brian Anderson: Well, we've certainly seen that in New York where the safety revolution of the nineties and 2000s helped rejuvenate the city, brought back commerce. You had, pre-pandemic, an economy that was as robust as any in recent New York history, so a lot of that was dependent on public safety, and that's why it's really so troublesome to see the crime rates spiking, not just in New York, but in other big cities as well. What are some of the themes or concerns that you're going to be looking at, at the Institute over the month ahead?

Charles Fain Lehman: Yeah, absolutely. So I'm still floating a number of different projects and there's a lot that I'm very excited to do. I'm really excited to be working with the Institute and be working with City Journal. I can say that of the ideas that are floating around, I'm in early research on a piece about what non-policing interventions can effectively reduce crime where my view is that there's a push on the institutional left more broadly, to say that we should come up with alternatives to policing and I think there's very little realistic support for that as a position, but that policymakers would do well to think about what are the compliments to police and what are the cost-effective measures they can take to reduce crime, to reduce violence in their communities that work alongside or supplement policing as a vital part of the public safety infrastructure, to keep communities safe and therefore to keep them thriving and vibrant, which we're talking about. I also expect to do some in-depth work with New York City's data on hate crimes and looking at the way the criminal justice system responds to hate crimes.

There's obviously, this is a big deal in the past year, there's a wave of incidence of hate crimes in the city, and I'd like to look more comprehensively at trends and ask the question of how well is New York City's criminal justice system responding to hate crime offenses. And then I'm also going to be looking potentially all the... I'm still figuring things out, but I'm interested in trends and the crime decline, which is really a sort of a framing feature of all contemporary discourse about crime and punishment in United States, this sort of miraculous decline in violent crime in the past 20 years.

And as I've noted in my reporting, but I think it's an under reported phenomenon. Otherwise, the crime decline ended about 10 years ago. It terminated again around at the time of the great recession. And I'm interested in talking about what happened, what went wrong and what policy choices we can make to recover that and potentially reframe the conversation to make the point that we really are leaving millions, billions of dollars and thousands of lives left unsaved by our policy choices that have moved us away from the successes of the late 1990s and early 2000s in terms of driving down crime, that we should not see the crime decline as something that is necessarily over, but as an active policy goal worth pursuing.

Brian Anderson: All that sounds tremendously interesting, Charles, looking forward to featuring your writing again in the future. Don't forget to check out Charles Fain Lehman's work for us at City Journal and at the Washington Free Beacon. We'll link to his bio in the description, and you can again, follow him on Twitter @CharlesFLehman. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and on Instagram @CityJournal_MI. And as always, if you like what you've heard on today's podcast, please give us a nice ratings on iTunes. Thanks for listening. And thanks Charles very much for joining us.

Charles Fain Lehman: Yep. Thanks very much for having me on Brian.

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