On June 25, the Manhattan Institute hosted Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., for an address on the state of policing and criminal justice in America. The following is an edited and condensed version of his remarks.
Five years ago, I spoke at some length on the subject of crime and violence in our streets. At the time, our nation was in the grips of the Obama crime wave of 2015–2016. We experienced the steepest two-year increase in murder in half a century and a significant rise in violent crime. That crime wave resulted directly from the Obama administration’s pro-criminal and anti-police policies. Federal malfeasance compounded the harm inflicted by the “Ferguson Effect,” itself the acute consequence of heightened anti-police activism and anti-enforcement policies at the local level.
I warned at the time that the criminal-leniency proposals being adopted across the nation are not merely wrong. They are dangerous. They threaten a return to the worst days of the 1990s, when law-abiding citizens lived in fear of their lives.” Based on the number of unsolved murders, rapes, and other serious crimes, I contended that, far from the fabled “over-incarceration problem,” America had an under-incarceration problem. Woolly-headed critics across the political spectrum condemned me for saying this.
But I was right then, and I’m right now. Tragically, my prediction at the time was, if anything, too optimistic.
Because as far too many Americans know firsthand, the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t the only crisis that struck our nation last year. A contagion of crime and a growing epidemic of drug abuse afflicted the nation as well and infected almost every community and neighborhood in America.
The Big Apple has gone from one of the safest metropolitan areas in America to a city terrorized by a nearly 100 percent increase in shootings and a stunning 44 percent rise in murder last year. In April, police in Brooklyn stopped a man named Takim Newson for suspicion of driving under the influence. When Newson admitted that he was high, the officer asked him to step out of the car. Instead, Newson sped away, dragging the officer several yards.
Newson then tried to rob a 66-year-old woman in her home and stole a car. After a manhunt, he was apprehended and put in jail. But what’s remarkable is that he should have been behind bars to begin with: he had been charged with attempted murder two months before but had been released without bail, against the advice of even his own defense attorney. This story of weak-on-crime policies resulting in pain and suffering for innocent Americans and selfless police is not unique. It has played out in countless communities across the country.
The nationwide surge in violent crime that started last year and continues today is far worse and more pervasive than anything during the Obama years. Indeed, this level of violence would have been nearly unimaginable five short years ago.
Last year, the United States experienced the largest single-year increase in murder on record and the most drug-overdose deaths in our nation’s history. Murder nationwide rose by an astonishing 25 percent, aggravated assaults increased in 56 of the 66 largest American cities, and 88,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses.
As I predicted, the murder rate has now reached the highest level since the mid-1990s.
This violent crime wave surprised many people. After all, starting in 2017, our nation got a reprieve from the criminal-leniency policies of the Obama administration. Violent-crime rates turned around and began declining in the first three years of the Trump administration, largely because of increased federal prosecutions of drug trafficking, gun offenses, and other violent crime. A 46 percent increase in federal funding to local and state law enforcement and a crackdown on illegal immigration also helped matters.
But even during those years of progress, the seeds of a future crime wave took root. Radical, left-wing prosecutors, many with campaigns funded by George Soros, won elections in major American cities and adopted radical criminal-leniency policies. In cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, district attorneys began refusing to prosecute laws against shoplifting, vagrancy, and entire categories of misdemeanors.
Earlier this year in Washington, a member of my staff had his car stolen right out of his driveway. When it was recovered, thanks to a GPS tracker, law enforcement in D.C. refused to dust the car for prints or conduct any investigation into the theft. It simply wasn’t worth their time.
In cities where they have taken over, these Soros-backed progressive prosecutors coddle even violent, career criminals, often agreeing to sweetheart deals. On the rare occasion when they go to trial, those criminals might as well have two advocates in the room, while the public and the victims have none.
But the rise of so-called “progressive prosecutors” wasn’t the only development that led to higher crime. Governors and mayors adopted a form of nullification, creating so-called “sanctuary jurisdictions” that shielded criminal aliens from prosecution. Many states across the nation naïvely began to close prisons and loosen sentencing requirements. And multiple states and cities have also relentlessly undermined our cash-bail system, with predictable consequences. In late 2019, the New York state legislature passed the most progressive cash-bail legislation in the country. By February 2020, crime in New York City skyrocketed by 22.5 percent. Criminals released from custody without bail went on to commit 800 new crimes including rape, murder, and robbery. After seeing the self-inflicted devastation of their state, even liberals in Albany admitted the policy was a mistake and revoked their ill-conceived law. But this didn’t stop the governor of Illinois, for example, from signing a law to end all cash bail in his state by 2023—as if crime in Chicago weren’t bad enough. Of course, it’s not billionaires like Governor J. B. Pritzker who will suffer from the consequences. Other states are still considering and implementing this insanity, which will inevitably increase crime just as it did in New York.
But these state and local changes aren’t the only criminal-leniency policies that were adopted in the last few years. In a grave bipartisan mistake, Congress passed the First Step Act with 87 votes in the U.S. Senate. I led the opposition to that bill, and I was one of only 12 senators who opposed it.
No doubt many politicians supported the First Step Act with the best of intentions, out of Christian charity and a desire to help criminals reform their ways. But this bill, which was sold as relief for “nonviolent offenders,” was in reality a dangerous jailbreak that unleashed thousands of hardened and experienced drug traffickers back onto the streets.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but apparently I do: drug traffickers are not engaged in a nonviolent offenses. Their practice is intimidation, their product is poison, and their customer service is the barrel of a gun. And no, contrary to the false narrative peddled by some, federal prisons aren’t filled with sympathetic “low-level, nonviolent” drug offenders. Virtually no one serves a long federal sentence for simple drug possession. The drug traffickers in federal prisons are serious, violent offenders who cause death and destruction everywhere they go. These merchants of misery didn’t deserve leniency, and many should count themselves lucky that they were never charged with murder. Yet the First Step Act retroactively released many of these career criminals anyway.
The conditions for a crime wave were building before the pandemic came to our shores. Now, let me be clear. The pandemic didn’t accelerate the crime wave because people were laid off, or isolated, or bored. Other countries hit even harder by the coronavirus didn’t see a spike in violent crime anywhere close to the one that we are experiencing.
Rather, state and federal officials foolishly slashed their prison populations by a stunning 25 percent in 2020 under the guise of so-called coronavirus protocols. Some of the beneficiaries were young violent offenders who immediately returned to a life of crime. In the case of Rikers Island, authorities released 1,500 prisoners; within less than two months, over 100 were back in jail. One of their most common offenses was burglary, and their crime spree helped fuel a large rise in break-ins throughout the city. So much for the claim that these were harmless criminals.
Next came the anarchy and rioting that followed the death of George Floyd. Rather than restoring order while allowing nonviolent demonstrations, liberal officials around the country responded with insane policies that undercut the rule of law.
Progressive prosecutors refused to do their job as more than 500 violent riots broke out across the nation. Over 2,000 police officers were injured, and line-of-duty deaths rose by 28 percent. Dozens of Americans were killed, and between $1 billion and $2 billion dollars’ worth of property damage was inflicted. The riots last summer were, collectively, the most destructive in American history.
Simultaneously, the consequences of the Ferguson Effect paled in comparison to the devastation wreaked by the “BLM Effect,” which massively curtailed policing in neighborhoods most in need of vigilant law enforcement. Here are just a few examples from the summer of 2020 to the winter of last year:
Police in Chicago made 53 percent fewer arrests compared to the same period of time in 2019. As a result, murder in the city rose by 65 percent.
In New York, police made 38 percent fewer arrests. Murder rose by 58 percent.
In Louisville, police made 35 percent fewer arrests. Murder rose by 87 percent.
In Minneapolis, police made 42 percent fewer arrests. Murder rose by 64 percent.
Leading Democrats called to “defund the police,” and at least 20 major cities agreed, slashing their police departments to the tune of $840 million. New York City alone shifted nearly $1 billion from the NYPD, and Los Angeles cut funding to its police department by $150 million.
The radicals didn’t stop at defunding the police; they also defamed, demoralized, and disarmed our men and women in blue. Portland announced that it would no longer allow its police to use tear gas against violent demonstrators. The Seattle and Philadelphia city councils voted to ban the use of pepper spray. Many other cities limited the use of rubber bullets.
It’s no surprise that in such a toxic environment, police retirements surged 15 percent in Chicago, 37 percent in Las Vegas, and 72 percent in New York City. And recruiting is just as bad. As officers around the country ask me, “Who would want to be police in today’s environment?” And it’s not because they aren’t willing to put themselves in harm’s way to protect the vulnerable; it’s because they know that pro-criminal policies are making it impossible to do the job.
This concerted nationwide attack on police is nothing less than the gravest assault on the rule of law in modern times. The simple fact is that today’s Democrat Party is pro-riot, anti-cop, and anti-prosecutor. Democrats today have more sympathy for violent criminals than for innocent victims. When given power, they turn the criminal justice system into the criminal’s justice system.
Democrats and BLM leaders ignore an obvious truth: if you stop enforcing the law, you will catch fewer criminals, and they will commit more and usually worse crimes. Again, I can hardly believe that needs to be said, and neither can most Americans with an ounce of common sense. But Democrats and BLM leaders long ago took leave of their senses and put their ideology ahead of your safety.
Let’s take a tour of the West Coast, a hotbed of far-left progressive policies, to see what happens to the rule of law when Democrats are in charge of public safety.
In Portland, they defunded the police. Portland, of course, witnessed some of the worst rioting last summer. Yet city leaders have consistently undermined their police and, as of January, had refused to prosecute over 90 percent of arrested rioters who were responsible for 100 nights of destruction. The city government slashed its police budget by $27 million and gratuitously disbanded a special gun-violence unit, as well. All with predictable results.
This year alone, Portland has suffered a fivefold increase in murder, and shootings have doubled compared to the same time last year. Crime is so rampant and police resources so overstretched that residents have to wait 40 minutes before even getting ahold of an emergency dispatcher. Recently, the entire Portland Rapid Response Team resigned en masse, and more than 10 percent of the Portland police department has left the force in just the last nine months. I’m surprised it’s not more.
While Portland offers a cautionary tale against defunding the police, Seattle ran an experiment in abolishing the police. As you may recall, a group of BLM activists and Antifa radicals joined together there and created the so-called Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone—better known by its acronym, CHAZ.
These armed neo-secessionists began their insurrection by forcing a police precinct to evacuate. Next, they barricaded the streets and declared a rogue province free of police and law enforcement. At the entrance of CHAZ they hung up a sign: “You are now leaving the USA.” Seattle’s clueless mayor, Jenny Durkan, refused to act decisively against these outlaws, instead declaring it a “Summer of Love.”
Inside CHAZ, however, it was anything but. Vandalism, disorderly conduct, and theft went unpunished. Reports of more severe crimes started to trickle out. Not surprisingly, CHAZ residents embraced vigilante justice without trial or due process. Soon enough, order broke down entirely, and the anti-police experiment came to an end after 24 days. But not before two persons were murdered and four more were shot. All of the victims were black men. Their lives mattered.
The final story from out west is about Chesa Boudin, the district attorney in San Francisco. Most Americans have probably never heard of him, but he illustrates very well the radical pedigree and dangers of “progressive prosecutors.”
Boudin grew up in red diapers. His family trafficked in far-left activism going back generations. His parents were left-wing Weather Underground terrorists who went to prison for murdering two police officers and a security guard when he was a child. Their fellow Weather Underground terrorists—and Barack Obama’s friends and mentors—Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn took custody of Boudin and raised him. Boudin lived up to this family tradition, dabbling in far-left politics and even serving in Venezuela as a translator for Marxist dictator Hugo Chavez. Unfortunately, he brought his radicalism back home, defending criminals for a living. Last year, Boudin became district attorney in San Francisco and immediately took criminal leniency to new extremes and public safety to new lows.
Let me give you just one example of Chesa Boudin’s handiwork. A criminal named Troy McAlister faced a well-deserved life sentence as a result of California’s three-strikes law and his long and violent criminal record, which includes multiple robberies, thefts, and attempted carjacking. Boudin was well aware of McAlister’s criminal history because he was McAlister’s defense attorney before his election. Despite, or perhaps because of, this conflict of interest, he cut a deal with McAlister and released him back onto the streets.
I think you can guess what happened next. McAlister committed a series of crimes leading to three separate arrests, but Boudin refused to charge him each time.
Then, on New Year’s Eve of last year, McAlister got a gun, stole a car, robbed a bakery, and then sped through the city until he ran over two women crossing the road. One was a 60-year-old homeless woman named Elizabeth Platt. The other was a 27-year-old Japanese immigrant named Hanako Abe. McAlister hit both women so hard with his stolen pickup truck that they were literally knocked out of their shoes. Both women died from their injuries.
McAlister’s own uncle expressed shock that Boudin had let his nephew out of jail, saying, “I don’t know why they released him. I really cannot understand that.” I can answer that question. Boudin released McAlister because he’s a radical ideologue who puts half-baked, far-left politics over the safety of our citizens. Hanako, Elizabeth, and many other San Franciscans are dead because Chesa Boudin refused to do his job.
Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco are all run entirely by Democrats, like so many other cities suffering from the crime wave. One Democrat above all could speak out against this insanity—Joe Biden. If the president were the Joe Biden of the 1990s, who claimed to be tough on crime and bristled that the “Clinton Crime Bill” was really the “Biden Crime Bill,” perhaps he would. But this Joe Biden is hardly better than Chesa Boudin. After all, he nominated as his vice president a woman who encouraged donations last summer to a bail fund for rioters and looters.
And it’s only gotten worse since Biden took office. The president has stocked his Department of Justice with pro-criminal lawyers. U.S. attorney general Merrick Garland wants to reduce prison sentences for drug traffickers and gang members. Associate attorney general Vanita Gupta has testified that every American citizen and institution is racist. Assistant attorney general Kristen Clarke has adamantly championed the cause of defunding the police.
The president doesn’t stop there. He wants to destroy qualified immunity for police so criminals can sue cops. He supports ending cash bail, which would unleash thousands of career criminals onto the streets to commit more crimes and intimidate their victims and witnesses.
The president supports sanctuary cities and has slashed immigration enforcement. Under this administration, ICE deportations fell to the lowest level on record while illegal border crossings have reached a 21-year high. Illegal aliens, including criminal aliens and cartel members, feel welcomed in Joe Biden’s America.
In June, President Biden also endorsed reducing criminal sentencing for crack dealers.
The only “solution” that the president has recommended to fight violent crime is the same one that he cynically proposes after every tragedy: a crackdown on the Second Amendment. But a gun-grabber’s wish list is not a crime agenda. And what we heard in June was sadly little more than the same tired liberal talking points that created this crime wave in the first place. Every one of these actions endanger the American people and make our streets less safe. After just a few months in office, the Biden administration is well on its way to becoming the most pro-crime administration in American history.
Though the president has turned his back on the hardworking, law-abiding citizens he once championed, normal Americans still see and feel the heartbreak. According to Gallup, 78 percent of Americans are concerned about rising crime, and more than half the country thinks that the problem is extremely or very serious.
Just as normal Americans understand the problem better than Washington, they also know the solution: more and better policing. Twice as many Americans believe that the criminal-justice system is too soft on criminals compared to those who think it’s too tough. Eighty-six percent of Americans want police to spend the same amount of time or even more time in their communities, including 81 percent of blacks. Indeed, blacks and Hispanics are actually more likely than whites to want an increased police presence in their communities. Yet, every day we are told by our nation’s elites that Americans actually want more leniency and weakness toward criminals.
That’s partly because rich celebrities, entitled intellectuals, and powerful politicians live behind gated walls and have armed security guards. For them crime is a distant, abstract thing—but for working-class and minority Americans, crime is all too often a daily reality.
Limousine liberals like Ibram X. Kendi and Al Sharpton believe that engendering social strife is the answer. The American people know that they are wrong. Americans understand that we need more law enforcement, not more division.
None of the charlatans and grifters who attack our police have walked a beat in a dangerous neighborhood, or run toward the sound of gunfire, or kicked down a door after reports of a domestic disturbance. Paid speeches, lucrative TV contracts, and fundraising galas aren’t quite so dangerous—or noble.
Police officers do the hard work of saving lives and changing communities for the better. Left-wing agitators, on the other hand, encourage crime and suffocate opportunity. But the American people know who the real heroes are.
From our city halls to the halls of Congress, our leaders need to get on the same page as our people. It’s time to get tough on crime again. I suggest four basic principles to guide us.
First, as I’ve said before, we don’t have an over-incarceration problem, we have an under-incarceration problem. In 2019, even before the recent violent-crime surge, only 41 percent of violent crime, 34 percent of sexual assaults, and 32 percent of property crimes were reported to the police. Only a fraction of these reports led to an arrest or conviction. On average, state prisoners serve only 44 percent of their sentences. Murderers on average serve less than 60 percent of theirs. These facts paint the clear picture that more criminals should be in jail today, not fewer. So before you saddle up your high horse about over-incarceration or mass incarceration, go tell it to a rape victim whose rapist was never brought to justice. Or the family of a murder victim who never got justice. Let me know what they think.
Second, the only good progressive prosecutor is a defeated progressive prosecutor. These radicals have no business holding any public office anywhere in our nation. Every single one of them should be recalled, removed, and replaced. It’s very simple: if you don’t want to prosecute crime, you shouldn’t be a prosecutor.
Third, if we did not have a border crisis, we would not have a drug crisis. The majority of meth, heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl comes across the southern border. This year alone, the Border Patrol seized enough deadly doses of fentanyl to kill every single American several times over. If we secure our border, we can block this flow of deadly narcotics and save tens of thousands of lives. If not, more Americans will keep dying as a result. An “open border” is a death sentence for thousands of Americans.
Fourth, policing is one of the greatest civil rights issues of our time. Weak policing, weak prosecuting, and weak sentencing hurts blacks more than any other group of American citizens. African-Americans tragically constitute approximately half of all murder victims and regularly suffer the brunt of damage resulting from riots.
The fair-weather protesters, who so fondly decry systemic racism, fail to see a cruel irony. If, as they claim, racist policy is defined solely by racially disparate outcomes, then their weak-on-crime proposals are in fact breathtakingly racist. When it comes to the morality of the rule of law, we should never take lectures from those who coddle criminals.
We can put these principles into action in a number of common-sense ways. We can begin by declaring a national emergency and surging resources, technology, and personnel to lock down the border. We need to finish the barrier wall on the border, while also hardening our ports of entry and ensuring that we have the most advanced drug-detection tools in the world. Some may balk at the cost of a secure border, but the cost of an insecure border is far greater.
As we secure our border, our government must go beyond simple defense. We must go on offense and fight the drug trade at its source. The United States must lead our neighbors in Latin America—and insist on greater cooperation from them—to crack down on our hemisphere’s drug cartels. The Sinaloa Cartel alone has killed far more Americans than ISIS or al-Qaida ever has. And we must not stand by as illicit Chinese super-labs continue to ship massive quantities of fentanyl and its chemical precursors to Latin America for production and shipment into the U.S.
We also have to solve our crime problem at home by reinvesting in the three Ps of law enforcement: police, prosecutors, and prisons. We should begin by making a once-in-a-generation investment in police salaries, training, and equipment, with a goal of putting 100,000 new officers on the street. Back in the 1990s, Joe Biden voted for 100,000 new officers—and he tried to take credit for it. For once, he was right, and the solution would help again. These new officers would contribute to more safety, security, and prosperity for our communities.
Furthermore, we have to enforce the laws on the books, including so-called minor or lifestyle crimes. That means fighting vagrancy, vandalism, and violent crime alike. Disrespect for the law doesn’t start with murder—and it must be stopped before it costs lives.
We need to ensure that criminals who are put in a squad car are then put behind bars. This means surging federal prosecutors to especially dangerous cities and encouraging voters to remove progressive prosecutors wherever they are found. States should also pass honesty-in-sentencing legislation so that criminals serve at least 75 percent of their prison sentences. We also must have zero tolerance for rioting and political violence of all kinds—even when the criminals share the faddish views of the faculty lounge.
We must invest in our nation’s prison system, so that our jails and prisons have the resources to hold inmates safely and securely while giving them an opportunity to turn their lives around and become law-abiding, productive members of society. Pre-release integration programming, work training, drug rehabilitation, and mental-health resources should be mandatory for prisoners who need it.
Our prisons must not become dens of crime themselves. We should crack down on prison gangs and improve prison-safety protocols. Congress should also pass my bill to enable prisons to jam the signals of contraband cellphones—the key tool used by criminals to continue committing crimes while in prison.
Finally, we should improve pay and benefits for our nation’s correctional officers and likewise expand the ranks of parole officers and encourage increased specialization, all of which reduces recidivism rates. Yes, it will cost money, but public safety is the first and most basic responsibility of government.
Some well-meaning people believe that we have too many people in prison already because they compare our prison population with the prison populations of other countries. This is not the way to make policy. The simple truth is this: the right number of people in prison should be determined by the number of people who commit crimes. And once they are convicted, they should be headed to the best and most effective prisons in the world.
Some less well-intentioned people assert that building prisons in fact increases the number of prisoners. A backbench congresswoman from New York recently claimed just that, as if crime and prisons operate like the Field of Dreams: “if you build it, they will come.” Criminals go to prison after committing crimes; refusing to build prisons does not reduce crime. In fact, it would increase crime by letting criminals remain on the streets.
This vigorous, aggressive strategy to break the current crime wave has succeeded in the past and will succeed in the future, as long as we have the fortitude and discipline to implement it. Safe streets and low crime rates aren’t inevitable, but rather require vigilance and strong leadership.
We must never forget how bad things once were and can become again: between 1973 and 1991, violent criminals injured nearly 37 million Americans. If crime rates had remained at peak levels, 83 percent of Americans over the age of 12 would have become a victim of violent crime over the course of their lives, and 40 percent would have been injured in a robbery or an assault.
If we continue on the path that we are on, we will return to the dark days of soaring crime and terrifying nights filled with muggings, rapes, and murders. Or we can say once and for all that we will never go back to that. Instead, we will reestablish the rule of law, we will lock up the criminals and deliver justice for the victims, and we will protect the innocent.
Thankfully, we have some of the finest men and women anywhere in the world to accomplish this objective. The story of the heroic American lawman is almost as old as our nation itself. In the days to come, new chapters must be written. Our heroes in blue have been beaten and bruised this past year, but they are unbowed and unbroken. They have bravely and loyally held the line through chaos and criticism. It’s time for them to take back our streets.
With our support, I’m confident that they will. Thank you, God bless you, God bless our police, and God bless America.
Photo by Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images