As the controversy swirls about how to reform the nation’s police forces, including Vermont’s, with a growing chorus favoring a cut in police budgets, it’s worth noting that on a per capita basis the United States employs about 35 percent fewer police officers than other nation’s worldwide.
Where we spend more than the world average — way more — is on prison guards, which makes sense because we incarcerate more people than any other country in the world. And, you guessed it, we incarcerate African-Americans at a rate that is 5.1 times the rate of whites. In Vermont, that ratio is more than 10-1. Little wonder “Black Lives Matter” resonates at such a profound level.
So how do we reconcile a low number of police and a high number of inmates? As any officer [or criminal] will tell you, the odds are good those who commit crimes won’t get caught. But, as both will confirm, if the perpetrators are caught, there is also a good chance they will go to jail and stay there for a while. Our prison sentences are also considerably longer than those in other countries, despite the evidence that long sentences don’t buy us much in determent.
What other nations have figured out is that more policemen equal lower rates of crime, which means fewer people incarcerated, which means lower costs. America is long on the punishment game, and short on prevention. Economists who study the issue, including the Council of Economic Advisers, show that a dollar spent on policing reduces crime far more than the dollar spent on imprisoning.
That makes sense. Particularly in areas of urban poverty. If there are more policemen in those areas, the crime rate is lower. It’s the constant presence of policemen and their familiarity with the neighborhoods they patrol that create a sense of stability, which lowers crime. The probability of being caught also rises, which discourages those so inclined. This is the outcome experienced elsewhere in the world.
Increasing the number of policemen in the United States would be politically tricky in the moment, for obvious and defensible reasons.
But today’s focus, while understandable emotionally, is backwards. It’s not that we should want police forces reduced in size, what we should work toward is a dramatic change in the police forces we have, the way they are militarized, they way they are protected legally that excuses and protects police brutality.
If the police — particularly in the inner city — weren’t armed to the teeth, and if they weren’t represented by over-zealous unions, and if they weren’t protected by qualified immunity [preventing them from being charged with brutality] then the relationship between the police and the community would change dramatically. For the better. The places that would benefit most from this changed environment would be the places that need more policing most. The end result would be less crime, which means fewer people imprisoned, which, together, would make for safer, more prosperous communities. The biggest gains would go to those most disadvantaged with the current system.
The city, or the neighborhood doesn’t matter. It could be the Bronx or St. Albans. What people want is to be safe. What they want is to see people treated fairly. To move from the system we have to the system we need means working smarter on the front end — policing, and depending less on the back end — our overcrowded prisons. It would end up costing us less and, as every nation on earth shows, and it would make our communities safer and our society more just.
To allow time to heal the wounds fresh from George Floyd’s death is tantamount to maintaining the systemic injustices that exist. Meaningful reforms are essential. Now. While adding to our policing sounds tone deaf in the moment, it’s anything but if in so doing we take apart policing as we know it and repackage it to make our communities safer and our prisons no longer the sole option.
by Emerson Lynn