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1990s Policing: Overrated or Underrated?

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.


Question of the Week

On Tuesday, Joe Biden declared that, “when it comes to public safety in this nation, the answer is not defund the police. It’s fund the police.” He was speaking in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. “I know we expect so much from our law enforcement officers, so we need to support them,” he said. “That’s why my crime plan is to help communities recruit, hire, and train nationwide more than 100,000 additional officers—accountable officers—for community policing.”

Biden is more than old enough to remember the crack epidemic of the 1980s, the murder spike of the early 1990s, the 1994 crime bill (the Senate version of which Biden himself drafted), and the unexpected decline in crime that made major American cities feel safer in the aughts than they had in generations. He has also witnessed the more recent rise of cellphone cameras documenting egregious police abuses, the ascendance of Black Lives Matter (a movement that perhaps saw its influence peak in 2020, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing), and the dramatic increase in homicides that disproportionately ended Black lives in 2020 and 2021, culminating in a Democratic president who sounds a lot like he did in 1994.

What are your thoughts on crime and policing? Wide-ranging answers are welcome, whether about the politics of the issue, policy, or the rise and arguable decline of the Black Lives Matter movement. I’d also be interested in hearing observations from your life experiences, or testimony about what’s going on in your neighborhood today. If you want more fodder for reflection, just keep reading.

Send responses to conor@theatlantic.com.


Conversations of Note

Here’s more from Biden on Tuesday:

I’m old enough to remember when cops used to walk the beat in Wilmington and Scranton, because they knew everybody. They knew the kid—they knew if something was trouble, they knew whose house to go and knock on the door and say, “Mom, your son just did … ”

Folks, when it comes to fighting crime, we know what works: officers on the street who know the neighborhood—not a joke—who know the neighborhood; who know the families they’re protecting; who get the training they need to be able to do their jobs well; who work to earn the community’s trust …  

And as we hire more police officers, there should be more training, more help, and more accountability. Without public trust, law enforcement can’t do its job serving and protecting all the communities. I’m being—I’m not being facetious. They knew the neighborhoods.

Biden talks like a man who believes himself to have solved this problem in 1994, only to have the nation forget what it took:

My deceased son, Beau, he was the Attorney General of the State of Delaware. And what he used to do is go down, in the east side, the—called the “Bucket”—highest crime rate in the country … And he’d go down and hang out and sit on a bench with my—my grandson, who’s now 17 years old. And the police used to be in the car—the local city police. And he’d walk up and bang on the window and say, “Get out of the car, damn it, and meet these people. Let them see you. Let them know you. Let them know who you are.”

Well, the truth was—remember what happened to community policing? We went from having enough cops on the street, to cities doing well, and then deciding they don’t need more police officers, so they reduced the police forces. So you didn’t have two cops in every vehicle; you had one cop in every vehicle. And I don’t blame one cop for not getting out of the car in certain neighborhoods … When my son was Attorney General, he’d go around in the tougher neighborhoods and he would ensure that every single cop gave his cellphone number to the local liquor store owner, the local church, the local grocery store, the local hamburger joint, so if there was a problem, they’d pick up the phone and call. Because what do people not want to do in tough neighborhoods? They don’t want to be the one identified as turning so-and-so in.

I remember going on the east side in Wilmington, in one of those old Victorian three-story apartment buildings, and going up to see a woman standing in that rotunda. She said, “Joey, I know what’s going on. They all plan it downstairs. I can hear them, but I’m afraid to tell anybody.” The gangs. So I got her a phone number for the local cops. She’d call. They promised not to identify her, because they knew there’d be retribution. And the crime rate began to drop. For real. Not a joke. You got to know people. And you got to be able to trust the police. And the police had to be able to trust the community. But we slipped away from that. And we have a hell of a lot fewer cops today than we did when I wrote that initial crime bill. But now, we’ve gotta get back to it.

This kind of rhetoric is dismaying to some Democrats, who associate their party’s 1990s approach to criminal justice with mass incarceration and police abuses. They don’t want to get back to that. “More cops without real reform is bad,” the journalist Isaac J. Bailey tweeted. “We’ve been down this road.”

I sympathize most with that perspective when I see Biden, in Tuesday’s Pennsylvania speech, declaring, “My plan does something else really important: It addresses the opioid epidemic. You notice how many people are dying of opioid overdoses now? And, by the way, laced with fentanyl … But we’re going to impose tougher penalties for deadly fentanyl trafficking that’s poisoning communities across this country.” How can a 79-year-old believe, after so many decades of contrary evidence, that harsher penalties for trafficking will stop addiction or overdoses?

Come on, Joe, what a bunch of malarkey!

But I also sympathize with the majority of voters, overall and in every major racial group, who favor hiring more police officers to deploy to high-crime areas. “Solid data suggests that even if you take a realistic view of the police, spending money to hire more police officers—an idea espoused by both Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—is a sound approach to the multifaceted problem of criminal justice,” Matt Yglesias argues in a 2019 article that goes deep in the weeds. “More police officers … doesn’t need to mean more arrests and more incarceration. More beat cops walking the streets seems to deter crime and reduce the need to arrest anyone. And some of the best-validated approaches to reducing excessive use of force by police require departments to adopt more manpower-intensive practices.”

My own advice for criminal-justice-reform advocates is to abandon the politically and, in my estimation, substantively catastrophic “Defund the Police” orientation and adopt “Solve All Murders” as a lodestar.

As I put it last year, the great insight of the writer Jill Leovy’s book, Ghettoside, is that a community can be over-policed and under-policed at the same time––and that reformers can end over-policing while also championing the proposition that more police resources are required to solve more violent crimes. In today’s context, that would mean a deal with the Biden administration that embraced his call for more cops—given mechanisms in place to ensure that, rather than being deployed in harassing ways (as they were during stop-and-frisk in New York City) or squandered playing whack-a-mole with fentanyl dealers, extra police officers would be used to solve more homicides, process more rape kits, and walk more community beats in ways that help people of all classes and races to feel as safe in their neighborhoods as wealthy folks do in theirs.

Of course, merely getting back to the comparably low murder rates of the Bush and Obama years would save many more Black lives than today’s status quo, never mind the “defund” approach advocated by the ascendant faction in the Black Lives Matter movement. But getting back to the murder rates of the aughts and 2010s is not enough. We should also avoid repeating the excesses of those years. In a recent issue of the American Journal of Law and Equality, Christopher Lewis and Adaner Usmani argue in favor of a shift in outlook that could conceivably achieve both of those goods:

Since 2014, viral images of Black people being killed at the hands of the police—Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, and many, many others—have convinced much of the public that the American criminal legal system is broken. In the summer of 2020, nationwide protests against police racism and violence in the wake of George Floyd’s murder were, according to some analysts, the largest social movement in the history of the United States. Activists and academics have demanded defunding the police and reallocating the funds to substitutes or alternatives. And others have called for abolishing the police altogether. It has become common knowledge that the police do not solve serious crime, they focus far too much on petty offenses, and they are far too heavy-handed and brutal in their treatment of Americans—especially poor, Black people. This is the so-called paradox of under-protection and over-policing that has characterized American law enforcement since emancipation.

The American criminal legal system is unjust and inefficient. But, as we argue in this essay, over-policing is not the problem. In fact, the American criminal legal system is characterized by an exceptional kind of under-policing, and a heavy reliance on long prison sentences, compared to other developed nations. In this country, roughly three people are incarcerated per police officer employed. The rest of the developed world strikes a diametrically opposite balance between these twin arms of the penal state, employing roughly three and a half times more police officers than the number of people they incarcerate. We argue that the United States has it backward. Justice and efficiency demand that we strike a balance between policing and incarceration more like that of the rest of the developed world. We call this the “First World Balance.”

We defend this idea in much more detail in a forthcoming book titled What’s Wrong with Mass Incarceration. This essay offers a preliminary sketch of some of the arguments in the book.

The rest of their paper is here.

Signing On and Sin

In the course of urging his fellow Catholics to “log off” of the internet and the devices that they use to connect to it, the National Review editor Jack Butler shares opinions about technology that may interest people of any faith or none:

Technology has made our lives better. But it has not altered human nature. In fact, it has exacerbated some of human nature’s worst tendencies, including the desire to sin. Modern social media makes this particularly obvious. Instagram, which allows users to convey their lives selectively, facilitates pride (in our own curated selves) and envy (of the curated selves others create). On many apps, infinite scroll invites sloth. And readier access to pornography has multiplied the scourge of lust. And then there’s Twitter … If there is one sin most endemic to Twitter, it is wrath—wrath produced in ourselves by learning of things that anger yet don’t really affect us; wrath spewed forth from ourselves toward some chosen foe; wrath at our own wrath. In this, it is deeply unhealthy.

Voter Fraud or Honest Mistake?

Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern lambasts Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for efforts to prosecute voter fraud that ensnared people erroneously told by the state that they were eligible to vote:

DeSantis made a spectacle out of the round of arrests made by his election police force earlier this month, jailing 20 people on charges of voter fraud and promising more prosecutions to come … But it turns out that the individuals ensnared in DeSantis’ dragnet had no idea that they could not lawfully vote. The governor’s own appointees flubbed their legal duty to stop them from registering. And because of their sloppy errors, all 20 defendants may well be acquitted of crimes they did not intend to commit.

DeSantis’ misadventure traces back to Amendment 4, the ballot initiative that was supposed to restore voting rights to most people who had completed sentences for felony convictions. (Those convicted of murder and sex offenses were excluded.) Floridians overwhelmingly approved the constitutional amendment in 2018. Yet DeSantis and his fellow Republicans promptly sabotaged the amendment by enacting an unnavigable, incomprehensible system for individuals who wished to regain their right to vote. The state refused to establish a coherent process for people convicted of felonies to learn they are eligible to cast a ballot. Many Floridians with disqualifying convictions, including the defendants arrested this month, are therefore unaware that amendment 4 does not apply to them … It appears that most if not all of the 20 men and women arrested by DeSantis’ election police did not realize they were not allowed to vote due to disqualifying convictions. They believed, in good faith, that they could exercise their civil rights … As Politico’s Matt Dixon has reported, these defendants were told by Florida officials that they were legally permitted to vote. And because they believed these officials, they now face up to five years in prison for the crime of voter fraud.

Barred From the U.S. Open

Novak Djokovic won’t be allowed to compete in the tennis championship because he is unvaccinated. “This rule makes no sense from a medical or public health standpoint,” Vinay Prasad argues in Common Sense:

Djokovic is 35 years old, and he is in terrific health. He has had and recovered from Covid-19 twice. This—and the fact that current variants are less lethal than prior strains—means that Djokovic’s odds of doing well were he to get sick with Covid-19 again are remarkably good, and lower than his risk of seasonal influenza. If Djokovic gets a vaccine at this moment it would be against the ancestral, Wuhan strain of the coronavirus and there is no good evidence this would further improve his odds. Now consider Djokovic’s risk to others. At least 140 million Americans have had and recovered from Covid-19 as of January (this number is higher today), and both vaccinated and unvaccinated can spread the disease. Data shows, when infected, that vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals shed virus at similar rates and for similar durations. Forcing Djokovic to get vaccinated won’t protect others. Sars-cov-2 will circulate in the United States for a thousand years whether we let Djokovic in, or keep him out forever.

Then, there are the absurd contradictions in our current rules. Unvaccinated American citizens can move freely in and out of the country without testing. Unvaccinated people can pack the stadium to watch this year’s U.S. Open, where face masks are optional. There is no vaccine or testing requirement to attend. Worst of all, Djokovic competed in last year’s U.S. Open, where he made the finals before the travel rule barring his entry was in place.  

Smart and Utterly Spineless

The science journalist Elizabeth Preston asks us to consider the octopus among animals used in research laboratories:

Lab rats have rights. Before researchers in the United States can experiment on the animals, they need approval from committees that ensure they follow federal regulations for housing and handling the creatures humanely. The same is true of scientists working with mice, monkeys, fish or finches.

These protected animals share one thing in common: a backbone.

But invertebrates in research labs, including worms and bees or cephalopods like squid and octopuses, do not receive the same protections from the federal government. As researchers are more often working with cephalopods to answer questions in neuroscience and other fields, the matter of whether they’re treating the animals humanely is becoming more pressing. Governments in Europe and Australia have written these smart, spineless animals into their laws. But in the United States, “If you were in a research setting, and you wanted to buy some octopuses and do whatever you wanted to do with them, there is no regulatory oversight to stop you,” said Robyn Crook, a neuroscientist at San Francisco State University.

The matter of octopus intelligence and what, if anything, it implies for octopus rights is ascendant in recent years. (If you’re new to this fascinating subject, I highly recommend starting with “Deep Intellect” by Sy Montgomery and “The Octopus: An Alien Among Us” by Michael S. A. Graziano.) In my estimation, what’s far more significant than the treatment of octopuses in research facilities is whether humans begin to factory farm the species.

Last December, the BBC reported on that seemingly imminent development:

The number of octopuses in the wild are decreasing and prices are going up. An estimated 350,000 tonnes are caught each year—more than 10 times the number caught in 1950. Against that background, the race to discover the secret to breeding the octopus in captivity has been going on for decades. It’s difficult—the larvae only eat live food and need a carefully controlled environment.

The Spanish multinational, Nueva Pescanova (NP) appears to have beaten companies in Mexico, Japan and Australia, to win the race. It has announced that it will start marketing farmed octopus next summer, to sell it in 2023. The company built on research done by the Spanish Oceanographic Institute (Instituto Español de Oceanografía), looking at the breeding habits of the Common Octopus—Octopus vulgaris. NP’s commercial farm will be based inland, close to the port of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands according to PortSEurope. It’s reported the farm will produce 3,000 tonnes of octopus per year. The company has been quoted as saying it will help to stop so many octopus being taken from the wild.

So you have the claim that octopus aquaculture could lower food prices and relieve pressure on wild octopuses … And on the other hand,  the prospect of hundreds of thousands of extremely intelligent octopuses perhaps suffering terribly in an octopus slaughterhouse that would, if successful, perhaps establish more of the same every year in perpetuity.

The blogger Scott Alexander’s reaction:

Let’s be against octopus factory farming. Octopi seem unusually smart and thoughtful for animals, some people have just barely started factory farming them in horrible painful ways, and probably there aren’t enough entrenched interests here to resist an effort to stop this.


Provocation of the Week

In Ordinary Times, the writer Sarah Baker notices that parts of the right are more and more enthusiastic about coercive central planning, and wonders how they square that with their rejection of leftist economics:

The entire reason some branches of the right increasingly embrace authoritarianism is that they see no remaining possibility to regain their roles as central planners of the culture without some use of government power. My question for them is how they can see so clearly the spiritual harm of economic socialism (as they understand it) and remain so blithely in denial about the spiritual harm of a centrally planned culture. Is it any less evil because it is a communism of the spirit and the culture instead of the economy?

I don’t believe we really have deep-seated differences of opinion about whether good parents should have some involvement in their kids’ curriculum. That’s thing-adjacent. The thing itself is a deep, existential argument about the relationship of individuals to society, the trade-offs between individualism and community, how much non-conformance the culture should tolerate, how to accommodate cultural minorities, etc. We should ask the questions on these terms, place debate in this framework. If you know we can’t centrally plan peoples’ jobs, why do you think we should attempt to centrally plan their genders or their lovers or what type of life they would find most fulfilling?

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