“When I think of the summer of 2020, I will always think of fire. The literal scorched earth in response to state violence, the burning rage against incessant injustice, the names of black victims that will be forever seared into my mind. But while the fires have swirled throughout our cities, their flames have not been hot enough to incinerate the numerous laws and practices that uphold and protect our corrupt system.”
I wrote that in September 2020, and with the vantage point of two years of history, the last line rings more true now than it did then. In fact, I would say the opposite has occurred. Instead of firing the engines of change, all the outrage, slogans, and demands from the police protests of 2020 seem to have instead ignited a backlash against criminal justice reform.
It’s an especially frustrating reality because the two decades that preceded the death of George Floyd witnessed the country make a 180-degree turn in our approaches to allocating justice. During that time, Republicans actually led the criminal justice reform movement, spurred by the realization that the “tough on crime” policies of the 1980 to early 2000s era had failed.
Indeed, the policies of the prior decades saw the US incarcerate over 2 million people. That’s more prisoners per capita than any other country. This broken approach clearly ran against limited government and individual liberty, principles American conservatives have long coalesced around.
And all of that incarceration comes with a steep price tag. We spend over $300 billion to prosecute and house all those people, and that number comes nowhere close to measuring the true economic impacts of incarceration. To understand the full toll, one must think of the lost jobs and contributions to the economy, the weight of single-parent homes, the effect a missing parent has on a child’s development and education, and so many other externalities.
Republicans, for many years, realized there were simply smarter ways to do things. They worked to remove re-entry barriers, develop workforce programs inside prisons, eliminate absurd mandatory minimums, implement diversion courts, make it easier for people to meet with their parole officers, and strip the state of the unconstitutional powers it had usurped in the name of “safety” like civil asset forfeiture.
And you know what? It freaking worked. Amid all the reforms, the years before the pandemic were some of the safest our country has seen in recent history.
So what happened? A lot. In fact, it was like 2020 created the perfect tornado to tear down the progress of the reform movement.
The Left got an inch and decided to take a mile
For years, the justice reform movement had struggled to garner the proper amount of attention for deaths at the hands of police. Many white Americans had chafed at the protests of Colin Kaepernick, shouted down the chants of Black Lives Matter, and largely ignored the deaths of police victims like Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, and Freddie Gray.
But with the lockdowns of 2020, a very online American public could not ignore the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery or the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It was a tragic set of events, but probably the best opportunity we’d ever had to show unaffected Americans the true horrors of our system occurring around them.
The data on this was always pretty damning. (And that’s just the data we can get, police departments are notorious for not turning in their numbers). According to the organization Mapping Police Violence, the police killed 1098 people in 2019—and that was 48 fewer people than they killed the year before.
Based on that data, black people were 2.9 times more likely to be killed by police than white people. And before you run off assuring yourself that’s because bLaCk PeOplE cOMmIt MoRe CrImEs, allow me to dissuade you of that simplistic explanation. Because the evidence of systemic discrepancies in the treatment of people of color versus white people in our system runs thick.
As cataloged by Radley Balko, a 2020 study that examined 95 million traffic stops across 56 different agencies found that black people were much more likely to be pulled over than white people during the day—but that disparity lessens at night when the police can’t see the race of the driver. The same study found that black people were also more likely to be searched after a stop even though white people were more likely to be found with illicit drugs.
Wait, I have more. A lot more.
Again per Balko, a review of 1.8 million police stops by the eight largest law enforcement agencies in California found black people were stopped 2.5x more than the per capita rate of white people. A 2020 study in Austin found black people and Latinos were more likely to be stopped, searched, and arrested than white people despite similar rates of drug use by these groups. In Cincinnati, black people were 30% more likely to be pulled over than white motorists.
I’m literally just scraping the surface here, I could go all day.
So do black people commit more crimes, or are they more likely to be stopped and searched in the first place? The data suggests the latter, and that premise is further backed up by the fact that black people are also way more likely to be arrested, charged more harshly, and wrongfully convicted.
(If you’re not sold still, please have at it and read through this list of dozens of other studies showcasing the rampant racial disparities in our system).
But in 2020, when the left finally had the nation’s attention on these matters and white Americans seemed more open to learning about these issues than ever before, the far Left fumbled the ball.
The Far Left’s extremism backfired
Research from Harvard shows that political movements only need to garner about 3.5% of the population’s support for an issue to effect meaningful change. And the research further shows that peaceful, non-violent, civil disobedience is the most expedient way to get there. That’s how the majority of the protests in 2020 began. But things quickly got out of hand.
The Black Lives Matter organization at the helm of the uprisings did little to nothing to quell the violent behavior cropping up at events across the country. Private businesses were burned and looted, riots broke out, and at least 17 people were even killed amid the violence and chaos. In response, the Left downplayed these incidents and many in their camp began advocating for the police to be defunded.
“Defund the police” will go down as one of the dumbest and most short-sighted political campaigns of all time. And even though the actual defunding of police departments almost never actually happened, the damage it wreaked on the reform movement is still ongoing.
First and foremost, the abolition of police and prisons is a very far-left agenda item. So far left that even progressive groups I’ve worked around in the reform movement would not co-sign it. Instead, the vast majority of people actually doing the work on the ground are incrementalists and focus on bipartisan efforts.
New Democrat congresswoman elect Cori Bush says she wants to defund the police. You can bet we haven’t seen the last of this horrific BS. This should be in every GOP ad for the special elections. Dems are the party of people who want to defund our police.pic.twitter.com/02LPOBekQF
— Robby Starbuck (@robbystarbuck) November 11, 2020
But in 2020, the Democrats were focused on the presidential election and they were terrified of isolating anyone on the far Left who might be in their base of support. So in response to the slogan, we saw even full-on cops like Kamala Harris and long-time drivers of mass incarceration like Joe Biden shy away from the full-throated condemnation of this idea you would normally have expected to see.
An opening for reform opponents
This gave the people who have always opposed criminal justice reform a huge opening.
Prosecutors, police, and a number of other taxpayer-funded professionals have always worked to block criminal justice reform and conserve their own power and taxpayer piggy bank. There’s also always been a portion of the conservative movement that opposed reform and advocated for sweeping police powers. (“Back the Blue, no matter who!”)
These camps rely on fear-mongering, bullying, and the threat of more extreme agenda items to come should lawmakers support common sense criminal justice reforms in order to get their way. Now, with the “defund the police” slogan out in the air, they were able to claim the cat was out of the bag.
Then came the spike in crime
To be clear, the crime increase is far more nuanced than you’ll find reported by much of the mainstream media. During the pandemic, violent crime went up in some areas, while burglaries and robberies went down. At the same time, total arrests nationwide plummeted 24% in 2020.
Much of the Right tried to claim this was due to the police being defunded. To hear them tell it the decrease in arrests was due to cops being run off the job and overwhelmed, thus leading to a spike in violence.
But to put it kindly, that’s a simpleton’s take and not one that takes into account the reality on the ground or the actual drivers of crime.
Did defund the police happen?
Despite the prominence of the slogan, in all but just a few places, the police were never defunded. In fact, a study of over 400 American cities and their budgets over the past 5 years found that police departments got the same average cut of the city budget in 2021 as they did in previous years.
And what of the infamous debates over the subject in progressive cities like Minneapolis and Seattle? Seattle ultimately cut their police budget by 11% in 2021, still allocating $360 million for its PD budget. And in Minneapolis, the support for abolition faded with voters ultimately rejecting a proposal to redesign the city’s police force by a 56% to 44% margin. That department received a 14.7% decrease in 2021, but recovered almost all of it by 2022.
So in reality, a correct reading of the data would indicate that crime increased (in part) because police punitively refused to do their jobs in the face of accountability and criticism—as well as thanks to the school closures, lockdowns, and economic uncertainties pandemic policies plunged us into.
One familiar with the corrupt practices of labor unions, especially public-sector ones, might also suggest police intentionally fell back from doing their jobs in certain communities and then used crime spikes to get more money for themselves and squash the scrutiny they were rightfully facing.
A missed opportunity on the Right
All of this is a tremendous missed opportunity on the part of the Right too. The actual drivers of crime were clearly exacerbated by the lockdowns and the economic policy decisions Democrats made during the pandemic, which is where Republicans should be pinning the blame for crime spikes.
The vast majority of crimes are committed by those under the age of 25. By shutting down schools and all of the extracurricular activities they offer, lockdown proponents gave this demographic a lot of unsupervised time on its hands during 2020 and 2021.
This choice was compounded by the lockdowns of private businesses that pushed people out of work and into poverty and hunger. We know that economic despair is a driver of crime, as is mental duress, which the lockdowns also exacerbated (especially in children and young adults).
The Right shouldn’t give up on criminal justice reform
For decades, the Right had the right idea in this scenario. We need a justice system that focuses our resources on actual crimes—one that intervenes swiftly to prevent violence and ensures victims get the closure and restitution they deserve when it does occur. We need to ensure that the people we employ to keep us safe act ethically and treat all Americans equally.
We need to enforce our Bill of Rights, especially the components that revolve around a defendant’s rights against a corrupt and always overreaching government. And we need transparency and accountability in the system when those in charge violate our rights.
This is a common sense value statement for anyone who believes in a limited government and individual liberty, which is what our Constitution is supposed to ensure.
Defund the police was a dumb slogan. But it would be even dumber for us to fall for the fear-mongering of those with vested interests in keeping the status quo in place.