After the election of Brandon Johnson as mayor of Chicago, many are bracing for more of the same kinds of negligent public-safety policies preferred by his predecessor, Lori Lightfoot. Johnson has made it clear that he will not invest in more police resources or officers, claiming that neither will make Chicagoans safer. He’s wrong, of course. Johnson and other progressive leaders might take a lesson on better public-safety policies from an unlikely source: Europe.
The U.S. and its peers in the European Union each spend roughly 1.2 percent of GDP on public safety, but the U.S. is much more violent. Americans are more than seven times as likely to be murdered than Europeans. More than 60 percent of American inmates committed violent offenses, compared with roughly 40 percent of European inmates. Nearly one-third of people released from American prisons go on to commit a violent offense within the first five years. Given these higher violence levels, America’s public-safety resources are spread far thinner than those of the European Union, undermining our ability to fight crime effectively.
So, what is Europe’s secret? One possible answer: police. Europe spends five times as much of its GDP on policing as on prisons. America, meantime, spends a mere 1.5 times as much on policing as on prisons. As a result, Europe has more than twice the total number of police officers as the U.S., despite only having 35 percent more residents.
Other metrics show in stark terms how under-policed America is compared with its European peers. America has roughly 198 officers per 100,000 residents—down 18 percent since the late 1990s—whereas Europe has 333 officers for every 100,000 residents. Comparing officer levels with violent-crime levels reveals an even more concerning statistic: Europe has 396 police officers per homicide; America has only 32.5.
These data show plainly that America has far fewer officers to handle far more violent crimes than other developed nations. Contrary to the popular progressive narrative, little evidence suggests that America is overpoliced. In fact, the United States is woefully under-policed, and we have the crime rates to show for it.
Of course, criminologists have long known that investments in police are an effective way to cut crime—and far more efficient than prisons, which are necessary but blunt (and costly) tools for fighting crime. University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt estimated that one dollar spent on police is 20 percent more effective at reducing crime than a dollar spent on prisons. In another study, he found that expanding police departments reduced violent crime by 12 percent and reduced property crime by 8 percent. Berkeley law professor Frank Zimring concluded that increasing the number of police officers per committed homicide contributed significantly to New York City’s 80 percent drop in crime over two decades. Notably, Zimring finds that much of New York’s police-driven reduction in crime came without substantial increases in prison populations.
Progressive politicians are choosing a dangerous course in refusing to invest in policing. At the heart of this ideological delusion is a gross miscalculation of the social costs of crime and policing. Advocates for shrinking police departments point to America’s outlier levels of officer-involved shootings compared to its peers. Unjustified police violence is contemptible and should be punished, but it is statistically quite rare. Its scale pales compared with the social costs of crime in the U.S.: 21 times as many people get killed in criminal homicides as are killed in officer-involved shootings. When including only unarmed individuals killed by cops, that figure grows to a multiple of 715. And the racial disparity among homicide victims is twice as severe as that among victims of police shootings. In 2021, roughly 27 percent of people killed by police were black; in 2019, 52 percent of homicide victims were black.
Despite worries about police violence, more than eight in ten black Americans want a strong police presence in their neighborhoods because crime is a pervasive and dangerous problem. Europe’s example suggests that having more cops may actually reduce the use of force, in addition to reducing crime. Progressives should extend their fondness for Europe to an embrace of its policing policy, which appears to get better results than America’s.
Photo by TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP via Getty Images