November 28, 2020

Police reform and good police work cannot be mutually exclusive


Dear PERF members, 

Going back to March, when COVID-19 first hit the United States, PERF has been tracking the impact of the pandemic on crime, and unusual patterns have emerged.  In the early days, we saw certain crimes come to a virtual halt, as the nature of our lives fundamentally changed.   Residential burglaries dropped, because many people were working from home or obeying “stay-at-home” orders. But commercial burglaries increased, because many businesses were shut down and there was no one keeping an eye on the store.  

After the first few months of the pandemic, more significant trends emerged, and two categories of crime “skyrocketed,” to use the word in Tom Jackman’s Washington Post headline. Homicides and aggravated assaults, including nonfatal shootings, increased sharply.

With the help of the Major Cities Chiefs Association collecting crime data from 67 of the largest American cities, and PERF then surveying our member chiefs, we were able to compile the most comprehensive look at the extent and nature of crime in 2020. We analyzed crime numbers from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30, 2020, and compared that to the same nine-month period in 2019.  

What we found was quite astounding.   58% of the agencies reported an increase in homicides, and 65% of the agencies reported an increase in aggravated assaults. Among the cities in the MCCA group, which were the largest cities surveyed, an even greater percentage – 84% -- saw increases in homicides.

But those national averages only tell part of the story. When you drill down and look at each city, some of the numbers are shocking. 

Here are some of the percentage increases in murders:

  • Minneapolis -- 85% increase
  • Portland, OR --  68% increase
  • Seattle -- 54% increase
  • Louisville -- 79% increase
  • Atlanta -- 38% increase
  • New York City -- 41% increase
  • Chicago -- 51% increase
  • Omaha -- 150% increase 
  • Spokane -- 275% increase 
  • Tulsa -- 35% increase 
  • Topeka -- 133% increase 

For Atlanta, this will be the highest number of murder in 30 years.  Minneapolis hasn’t seen these kinds of numbers since the 1990s, when the New York Times called the city “Murderapolis.”  In Louisville, a local news story noted that murders this year surpassed 2016, which until now was the most violent year on record in that city.

What’s causing the increased violence? Police chiefs told us a lot of things.

As we talked to police chiefs over the last couple weeks and asked them why this is happening, many of them use the expression “perfect storm” to describe the multiple factors they are seeing, including:

  • The largest health epidemic we have faced in 100 years, which has put many people under tremendous stress, and has forced police to pull back from many types of encounters they normally have with the public;
  • Thousands of demonstrations across the nation, starting with the death of George Floyd in May, which in some cities devolved into riots;
  • The early release of inmates, as jail and prison officials scrambled to slash their inmate populations in order to give themselves a fighting chance at avoiding COVID epidemics among their inmates and staff members. With nearly 1,300 inmate deaths and 78 correctional officer deaths due to COVID, the rush to cut inmate populations is understandable;
  • A criminal justice system that in many places has come to a virtual standstill, as courts shut down;
  • Calls for defunding of police agencies that resulted in budget cuts with no recommended alternatives;
  • The cancellation of new recruit classes in some cities coupled with surges in retirements and resignations, which has resulted in fewer officers on the street; and
  • A very contentious national election that polarized the country into warring factions.

This has all had an impact. 

If you look at the cities that had the most vitriolic demonstrations, such as Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, and Louisville, they had some of the highest increases in homicides. Portland, for example had more 100 straight nights of demonstrations.

As we spoke to chiefs and other folks in those cities, they told us that they allocated considerable resources to managing the demonstrations, to prevent further violence and property destruction. Those resources had to come from somewhere.  The officers were getting pulled from neighborhoods all over the city, including areas that most need police protection.

One key factor: Wholesale release of violent offenders and gun offenders

Talking to police chefs, they’ll also tell you that in many cases, people who were getting arrested were put back on the street very quickly. This had significant and tragic consequences.

You need look no further than the November 9 murder of Houston Police Sergeant Sean Rios. Police arrested a 24-year-old suspect who had a criminal record dating to 2014, and who was arrested in February on a gun charge but was released on a $100 bond.

These stories are being told over and over again. The movement to reduce bail makes considerable sense, except in the case of those who are arrested for violent crimes or illegal gun possession.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room

I think that all these factors have contributed to an increase in violent crime.  But there’s one more factor – the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.  And that is the impact of all of this on the working cop.

In all the conversations we have had recently with chiefs as well as working cops and homicide detectives, there’s this one constant refrain:  The day-to-day activity of working cops has changed when it comes to proactive police work.  

And the bad guys know this. Many of them are now carrying weapons, because they recognize that the chances of being stopped have been significantly reduced. 

And as a result, disputes that might otherwise end with an exchange of words are now ending with gunfire.

There are many good reasons why police have needed to become more “distant” from people on the street, starting with the need for officers to reduce their COVID-19 risks. This is just a fact of life today. We tell people to stay away from each other.

But there are also other reasons for this “distancing” factor that police are more hesitant to talk about. Many cops whose jobs involve proactive, Constitutional police work have become more cautious about their activities.  Why? Because they’re concerned about a legitimate arrest becoming contentious, and a video going viral without any context, and political leaders quickly weighing in.

One specific example is that a cop in New York City, who now because of a new city law that was enacted, has to worry about being charged with a crime if in the course of a difficult arrest has to put his knee on someone’s back momentarily. Think about the unintended consequences of that legislative action.

When a person adamantly resists being arrested, the results can look bad, no matter how the arresting officer goes about it.  Even a traffic stop can go badly, resulting in a video that has ramifications for the officer’s career.

In past years, the “police reform” movement has resulted in many changes that make a lot of sense: body-worn cameras, more effective de-escalation training, improved oversight, external reviews of use of force, etc.

But today, the talk of police reform has taken on a very different feel, with calls to “defund the police” and just put the police budget on the chopping block.  Back in July, PERF conducted a survey and found that 48% of our responding departments had either experienced budget cuts already, or expected that their budgets would be cut in the next fiscal year. Only 17% expected a budget increase. Many of these cuts were due to the economic downturn and lost tax revenues caused by COVID, but those cuts were more targeted and surgical. “Defunding” is more of a meat-ax approach.  Rather than invest in police work, the movement has been to pull back from the profession.

This defunding rhetoric and actions of local politicians have made working cops think twice about engaging in proactive police work.

Importantly, it is not because they lack the will to do their jobs. Rather, they simply fear that the current environment isn’t sympathetic to the complexities of police work. Politicians will rush to judgment without understanding the full context.

What is the solution?

What is to be done? Let’s talk short-term and long-term.

Short term, I like what Interim Chief Susan Manheimer did in Oakland.  She met with the mayor, district attorney,  probation officials, and judges to discuss what was happening. And Susan came to the meeting prepared. She brought specific examples of violent offenders who were released, only to commit violent offenses

Chief Manheimer told a reporter, “We had a four-hour meeting with one of the judges, where we showed them how we tracked back 15 violent offenders who were released and then committed another violent crime.”

This next part is amazing:  Susan told the judge, “One of the cases was an individual arrested twice in July and again in August, and got out on zero bail for automatic gun possession. We knew he was such a risk we started following him, and viewed him commit two shootings. He is now in custody.”

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley is part of the working group in Oakland. According to the San Francisco Chronicle article, District Attorney O’Malley “recognized the need to exempt illegal possession of firearms – especially possession of assault weapons – from the zero-bail formula.”

This is the kind of thing that needs to happen all over the country, as an immediate short-term response to the current situation.  Police chiefs, prosecutors, probation officials, and judges should get together to talk about the sharp increases in violent crime, and what can be done about them. Right now, we have too much finger-pointing and not enough problem-solving.

We also need to bring the community into this conversation.  Talk to residents on the North Side of Minneapolis or the South Side of Chicago, and they’ll be the first to tell you they need cops to step up. People want good working cops in their neighborhoods.

And in Los Angeles, people experiencing homelessness are especially vulnerable to violent crime. This year, more than 30 of the city’s homicide victims were homeless, according to the LAPD.

In the longer term, I think the conversation about police reform has to evolve, as we think about the American communities that suffer the worst consequences of gun violence – namely, those who live in the most economically challenged parts of every American city, who often tend to be disproportionately minorities.  

Police reform and good police work cannot be mutually exclusive. They must work together toward the same goals.  But right now, the prevailing narrative has had a devastating effect on officers who want to engage in proactive police work, but fear the consequences.  If you think about it, the unintended consequences of this narrative are impacting the people who depend upon police for their safety, in ways that those living in other parts of the city don’t have to worry about. 

So there has to be some balance here, with political leaders talking both about police reform as well as valuing the efforts of working cops to do their job at preventing crime. There simply is a lot about the former and too little about the latter. Police reform is important, but we can’t ignore the sanctity of human life in the neighborhoods that depend on police to protect their safety.

I think there is an opportunity here to change this narrative.

Thanks for everything you do for your departments, and for sharing your data on crime and other issues with PERF.  I hope you enjoy your post-Thanksgiving weekend.

Weekend Clips are below.