Report: Abolishing Police Is a Disastrous Idea

Chicago Police Department officer / Getty Images
April 21, 2021

The push to abolish police departments and replace law enforcement officers with social service workers would be ineffective and dangerous, putting social workers in harm's way and limiting the ability of police to fight crime, according to a Manhattan Institute report published Wednesday.

Arguments to defund the police began in earnest following the death of George Floyd last summer, but since then activists' demands have grown even more extreme, Manhattan Institute fellow and former Washington Free Beacon staff writer Charles Fain Lehman argues. Whereas yesterday's radicals preached a mere reduction in the police force, today's radicals, like Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.), want to jettison law enforcement entirely. By abandoning the use of force, replacing cops with unarmed social workers, and reallocating police budgets into education, health, and welfare initiatives, advocates plan "not to reform the police but to replace them," the report states.

But the evidence doesn't support this conclusion. First, a review of alternative crime-reducing strategies, such as deescalation training, crisis intervention teams, and so-called violence interrupters, shows nothing is as successful in reducing crime as police presence. Not only that, but the effectiveness of these alternatives, which eschew the use of force, can't be analyzed apart from the police already working alongside them. The programs do not consistently reduce arrests, injuries, or excessive use of force by law enforcement officers.

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio (D.) slashed $350 million from the NYPD's budget last year in favor of "violence interrupters," who work in high-crime areas to diffuse violence before it occurs. But an analysis of one of these programs in Chicago revealed "violence interrupters" reduced shootings in only three of the seven neighborhoods analyzed, gun homicides in one, and gang homicides in none. In a Pittsburgh version of the same program, violence actually went up in the neighborhoods surveyed.

Alternatively, high police presence in neighborhoods reduces crime—and citizens know this. In a survey conducted following protests and riots last summer, "86 percent of all Americans and 81 percent of black Americans said that they would want the police to spend the same length of time or longer in their neighborhoods." Americans "don't want less policing," Lehman says.

Second, reallocating police budgets to education, health, and welfare services would not reduce wrongful death, crime, and inequality at a stroke, as reformers claim. City budgets already spend disproportionately more on welfare, health, and education initiatives. Policing accounts for $192 billion of spending at all levels of government, whereas education spending accounts for a little more than $1 trillion. Transferring the money would be, he says, "a drop in the bucket."

Budget constraints would also hamper efforts to replace police officers with social service workers, since scaling up existing budgets would be expensive. For example, the city of Eugene, Ore., has a $2.1 million social services crisis response budget, yet it handles less than 20 percent of the city's emergency calls. Should the number of social workers increase to replace law enforcement officers, the city would face not only budget constraints but difficulty finding and hiring the requisite number of social workers. A terrible trade, Lehman says, since police already punch way above their weight in reducing crime at a fraction of the cost—a function that benefits the least advantaged Americans most.

"If all levels of government defunded police comprehensively, the increase in funding for other services would be a drop in the bucket compared with what is already spent—hardly the social revolution that defunders promise," he writes. "And it would come at enormous cost to public safety, a cost borne disproportionately by the least advantaged Americans."

The report goes on to highlight three potential complements to existing law enforcement measures: combating crime through environmental design, such as improved street lighting; extending the police's monitoring capabilities through neighborhood watches and CCTVs; and tougher enforcement on alcohol, which is heavily correlated with criminal offenses. (One in three incarcerated persons were drinking at the time of their offense.)

Police reform has stalled in Congress, Lehman says, because the discussion was "framed as a matter of opposing the police wholesale" or "doing away with an institution often slandered as retrograde, unreliable, and racist to the root." But lawmakers should not succumb to the gridlock this narrative imposes because "there is a great deal of merit to nonpolicing crime-reduction tools, considered not as replacements but as complements." As the United States emerges from a decades-long crime decline, lawmakers have a range of effective policies at their disposal to fight back, but abolishing the police, it seems, isn't one of them.