Memorial Day shootings prompt calls for more police—but why?
Less than a week into her tenure as mayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot faced the yearly threat of violence over Memorial Day weekend. Last Thursday, Lightfoot said she would try to prevent violence by “flooding the zone,” adding 1,200 police officers working overtime and on adjusted schedules, 50 officers on buses and trains, and by having police conduct drug raids throughout the city leading up to the weekend. “I want our kids to be safe in every community. That’s what success looks like. I know that we’ve got a way to go on that journey. But, I want to make sure we start the building blocks aggressively this weekend,” Lightfoot said. The Democratic mayor’s language, which emphasizes the importance of aggression and physical force, reveals a continued faith in the power of increased police presence to reduce crime.
Despite these efforts, at least 43 people were shot in the city over the weekend, seven fatally, an increase from last year, when 39 people were shot, seven of them fatally. The new mayor rode with officers over the weekend and responded with them to a shooting on the South Side. She also acknowledged the role of non-law enforcement tactics in preventing shootings: “This is not a law enforcement-only challenge,” Lightfoot said. “It’s a challenge for us in communities to dig down deeper and ask ourselves what we can do to step up to stem the violence.”
In New York City, where murders and shootings are at levels lower than any seen since the 1950s, an isolated spike in shootings among rival gangs in North Brooklyn has prompted police to send additional patrols to certain housing projects. In March, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill and Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announced a new push to crack down on gun crimes, which increased gun arrests by 10 percent compared with the same time last year. The NYPD gave the affected precinct eight additional officers in February and will send 17 graduates from the police academy to the command as well. “More than I’ve ever gotten,” said a deputy inspector from the precinct.
But more police does not necessarily mean more safety. Sometimes, it means less. In 2014, sociologist Alex Vitale wrote an article entitled, “We Don’t Just Need Nicer cops. We Need Fewer Cops.” In the wake of high-profile police shootings, people were calling for various police reforms, but Vitale expressed skepticism about many of these. “Everyone likes the idea of a neighborhood police officer who knows and respects the community and can tell who the good guys and the bad guys are,” he wrote, referring to community policing. “Unfortunately, this is a mythic understanding of the history and nature of urban policing. What distinguishes the police from other city agencies is the legal authorization to use force. Their primary tools of problem solving are arrest and coercion. While we need police to follow the law and be restrained in their use of force, we cannot expect them to be significantly more friendly given their current role in society. The reality is that when given the task of enforcing a war on drugs, stamping out quality-of-life violations and engaging in ‘broken windows’ policing, their interactions with the public in high crime and disorder areas is going to be at best gruff and distant and at worst hostile and abusive.”
Likewise with enhanced training, Vitale notes that although improvements in training are needed, “the fact remains that the massive criminalization of communities of color is being carried out using ‘proper procedures.’ The tens of thousands of arrests for low-level drug possession, trespassing, jumping subway turnstiles and dozens of other ‘broken window’ offenses are generally carried out consistent with police policy, if not strict legal standards. Eric Garner may have been killed by improper arrest procedures and use of force, but he was also killed because the police were following orders to arrest people for selling loose cigarettes.”
Instead, Vitale writes, the public needs to push back on the “dramatic expansion” of police power and its role in society. “Any real agenda for police reform must look not to make the police friendlier and more professional. Instead, it must work to reduce the police role and replace it with empowered communities working to solve their own problems. We don’t need community control of the police. We need community control over services that will create safer and more stable neighborhoods and cities.”
Over the past five years, the number of police officers has declined, and the number of police officers per 1,000 residents has been dropping for two decades. The U.S. lost more than 23,000 officers from 2013 to 2016, according to a Justice Department survey. “At the same time, the violent crime rate has also dropped,” write Wendi C. Thomas and The Marshall Project’s Simone Weichselbaum. According to several policing experts, cities are intensely focused on raw numbers, hiring consultants “in a desperate quest to increase their headcount.” Adding more cops to a violent city seems obvious, but the research does not show that it drives down crime rates. James McCabe, a retired NYPD official who now works as a police staffing consultant, says there is little clear connection. “New York City made the conscious decision to reduce the number of cops,” he said. “And crime continued to go down.”
At the end of 2014, as a form of protest, the NYPD began a work slowdown, during which officers were explicitly instructed to perform only their most crucial duties. They were told not to leave their squad cars unless they felt compelled, and were significantly less likely to enforce minor legal violations. Researchers found that civilian complaints of major crimes—murder, rape, felony assault, burglary and grand larceny—did not increase during this time, but instead they actually declined.
Trenton, New Jersey, like Chicago, saw multiple shootings over the holiday weekend, but Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, turned to less obvious solutions in addressing the problem. He touted his policy of publicly identifying which states are the sources of guns used in crimes in New Jersey and said that it is time to go even further: “We’ve gone from naming and shaming states that contribute illegal guns. We’ve now begun to name and shame manufacturers.” Trenton’s mayor, Reed Gusciora, said there are other ways to address gun violence. “Trenton can’t continue to be a tale of two cities,” he said, “where you have people who are trying to have economic development and improvements to education, and you have neighborhoods that are racked with gun violence.”