Many advocates of “defunding the police” contend that too many police encounters with civilians concern trivial matters. Defunding proponents worry that poor decisions by officers can escalate tensions and lead to unnecessary uses of force. They argue that the police mandate should be more narrowly focused on responding to “serious” crimes, especially violent felonies. All other matters should not be considered police business. This premise has gained a receptive hearing in our political climate. Most people instinctively support the idea of leaving management of serious felonies to the police, who are certainly less likely to get into trouble if their job is simply to arrest violent felons.

But American policing has tried this idea before, and the results were disastrous for communities and police agencies alike. If history is any guide, confining police focus to serious crimes will do little to manage those offenses—and the strategy may further damage the relationship between police and citizens.

In the early 1900s, American policing was in turmoil. Political patronage largely determined which officers were hired, fired, and promoted. Officers themselves were often underqualified, poorly trained, and inadequately supervised. The mid-twentieth century saw a wave of policing reforms across the United States. Reformers sought to remove corrupting influences and to professionalize police with a more specific mandate. Thus was born the image of the “professional crime fighter”—the impartial law enforcement officer, objectively remote from citizens, who could bring to justice those accused of serious crimes. Radio cars, the 911 system, and “rapid response” emerged as the primary means to carry out this narrowly defined mission, which contained within it the seeds of future problems. “Police business” meant serious crime, and “real police work” meant patrolling in cars, waiting for calls about felonies in progress. Officers were discouraged from paying attention to minor disorder and other community problems. Citizen requests for assistance with such issues were thus easily ignored, dismissed as “social work,” or hastily (and ineffectually) handled.

The image of police departments improved somewhat in the postwar years. The introduction of the civil-service system and similar mechanisms helped to lessen political and other corrupting influences on officers. Standards were toughened for recruitment, training, and supervision. Despite its new image, though, policing during this era generally failed at meeting community public-safety needs. The professionally remote law enforcement officer, now accountable more to the government than to the citizenry, often came across as aloof, uninterested in community problems. Tensions ran high between officers and citizens, especially in minority neighborhoods.

Many critics attribute these tensions to over-policing, such as the use of unnecessary or excessive force by officers, but under-policing contributed to the problem, too. Police simply failed to take seriously many community problems that fell short of their felonious-crime mandate. They essentially abandoned residents to disorderly conditions and behaviors in neighborhoods, rarely engaging citizens unless called upon to address “serious” crime.

And despite their focus on serious crime, the police largely failed to control it: rates of crime and violence soared from the 1960s through the 1980s. The focus on serious offenses placed police in a reactive mode, contributing to the decline in safety. It’s extraordinarily rare for police on routine patrol to come upon felonies in progress; cops rely heavily on citizens to report serious crimes. And, for reasons usually related to delays in reporting, the speed of an officer’s response makes a difference in only a very small number of cases. For most calls related to serious crimes, the perpetrator is no longer at the location when the police arrive; the best that an officer can do is gather evidence from the scene and interview victims or witnesses. A significant body of research over the past 40 years has demonstrated that reactive policing is mostly ineffective at preventing crime and violence.

Research is equally clear that police can be successful at crime management when they use the proactive tactics associated with community policing to reduce crime and make citizens feel safer. Among others, these tactics include managing disorder while patrolling in localized crime “hot spots”; paying attention to minor offenses that are often precursors to serious crimes; identifying and working with those at the highest risk of violence; helping citizens with problem-solving and crime-prevention exercises; patrolling on foot and bicycle; and partnering with mental-health and social-service counselors on co-response efforts. Many of these methods do not focus directly on serious offenses, though the reduction or prevention of criminal activity may be the ultimate goal. Some are implemented in response to community requests for police assistance in helping to maintain quality of life in neighborhoods; others are designed to address underlying causes of community problems that can lead to serious crime.

Research and practice demonstrate that community crime problems are specific to individual locations; there is no “one size fits all” technique that works all the time or everywhere. Proactive tactics work best when designed in partnership with the communities where they are implemented. These methods are entirely consistent with core community-policing principles, which emphasize police accountability to local neighborhoods and police-citizen collaboration.

Countering the narrative advanced by many defunding advocates, most people—of all races and ethnicities—want to see more police in their neighborhoods, not fewer. In fact, residents of poor urban communities affected by crime and disorder are often the strongest supporters of community policing. At the same time, citizens demand that officers perform their tasks fairly, legally, and without prejudice. Police training and policies must emphasize the proper use of discretion, and officers must be held to high standards of accountability in order to maintain trust between police and the community.

It’s true that police are called on to address many difficult societal problems that don’t fall under the umbrella of “serious crime,” including loud music, graffiti, littering, public alcohol and drug use, and loitering associated with street-level drug dealing and prostitution. But directing officers to ignore these “minor” violations divorces the police from mutually desirable connections with the citizenry, reduces responsiveness to neighborhood complaints and concerns, and takes away vital tools for understanding the community and managing public safety.

Police agencies should, of course, partner with social workers, counselors, and mental-health providers when possible. Public-safety departments, in fact, have had success with programs where trained mental-illness or substance-abuse responders work in coordination with officers who provide support and security. Co-responder programs such as these precisely demonstrate the value of effective partnerships between police, citizens, and other community agencies.

As budget cuts begin to affect police personnel, departments may have to pull officers from proactive activities and place them in response cars to manage the demand for emergency calls. If this happens, it bodes a return to the reactive mode of policing seen during the 1950s. This strategy didn’t work back then, and there is no indication that it would work now. Higher rates of crime and disorder will likely result. Policymakers should pay heed to the lessons of an amply documented history: community-based proactive policing works.

 Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images


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