Criminal-Justice Reformers Chose the Wrong Slogan

“Defund the Police” is a disaster. Under-policing is a form of oppression too.

Illustration of a body outline and a megaphone
Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

After George Floyd’s murder, when sweeping criminal-justice reforms seemed more possible than ever, many Black Lives Matter activists and their allies settled on a rallying cry: “Defund the Police.”

That choice was a disaster. The slogan—shorthand for cutting spending on law enforcement and redirecting it toward social services, or, for more radical proponents, moving toward eventual police abolition—is a political liability, largely due to justified fears that, if implemented, it would lead to many more murders, assaults, and other violent crimes, disproportionately harming victims in America’s most marginalized communities. Yet even as the Democratic Party abandons the slogan, the activist left still clings to it, as if oblivious to its opportunity cost: Namely, the public is open to any number of potential improvements to American policing, but no politically viable reform is getting anywhere near the attention of “defunding.”

Before the public sours on criminal-justice reform more broadly—as it may amid rising fears about crime and disorder in cities—a new focus and rallying cry are needed. And given the spike in homicides that has afflicted the United States during the pandemic, disproportionately killing Black people, there’s an especially strong case for this overdue slogan: Solve All Murders. Precisely because Black lives matter, people who take Black lives shouldn’t get away with it.

The Murder Accountability Project, a nonprofit watchdog group that tracks unsolved murders, found in 2019 that “declining homicide clearance rates for African-American victims accounted for all of the nation’s alarming decline in law enforcement’s ability to clear murders through the arrest of criminal offenders.” In Chicago, the public-radio station WBEZ’s analysis of 19 months of murder-investigation records showed that “when the victim was white, 47% of the cases were solved … For Hispanics, the rate was about 33%. When the victim was African American, it was less than 22%.” Another study in Indianapolis found the same kind of disparities.

Eliminating such disparities ought to be a priority for all Americans, including anti-racist activists. But that’s unlikely so long as Black Lives Matter leaders and their allies focus on defunding the police.

Democrats aren’t merely distancing themselves from “defund the police”; they’re trying to associate Republicans with the slogan. Joe Biden’s pandemic-relief bill included funding for local police departments (among many other line items), and, as the 2022 midterms approach, Democrats are accusing GOP opponents of the bill of trying to “defund” law-enforcement agencies that the legislation supported. “And according to Democratic aides, the change in messaging is coming straight from the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi,” Akela Lacy reported last week in The Intercept. How did we get here?

Last summer, many progressives persuaded themselves that “defund the police” was not just a talking point that some radicals favored, but an attainable goal. “The movement to defund the police is gaining significant support across America, including from elected leaders,” The Guardian reported on June 4, 2020. “Government officials have long dismissed the idea as a leftist fantasy, but the recent unrest and massive budget shortfalls from the Covid-19 crisis appear to have inspired more mainstream recognition of the central arguments behind defunding.”

Within left-activist bubbles, criminal-justice-reform proposals that stopped short of defunding the police lost any credibility. By mid-June 2021, for example, the leaders of 8 Can’t Wait, a campaign to get police departments to reform their policies on when and how to use force, felt obliged to apologize for focusing on lifesaving reforms rather than defunding. “We’ve seen dozens of cities adopt the goals of #8CANTWAIT, policies that can reduce the harm caused by police in the short-term,” a statement on their website declared. “And while we are proud of the impact we were able to make, we at Campaign Zero acknowledge that, even with the best of intentions, the #8CANTWAIT campaign unintentionally detracted from efforts of fellow organizers invested in paradigmatic shifts that are newly possible in this moment. For this we apologize wholeheartedly, and without reservation.”

In fact, “defund” was the problem, because the mainstream still regarded defunding the police as a leftist fantasy. And that fantasy appeared to hurt Democrats in the 2020 election. “In the summer, following the emergence of ‘defund the police’ as a nationally salient issue, support for Biden among Hispanic voters declined,” the data scientist David Shor argued in an interview with New York earlier this year. “So I think you can tell this microstory: We raised the salience of an ideologically charged issue that millions of nonwhite voters disagreed with us on. And then, as a result, these conservative Hispanic voters who’d been voting for us despite their ideological inclinations started voting more like conservative whites.”

The utter unpopularity of defunding the police has since become even clearer. By 2021, some of the cities that made the most significant gestures toward cuts to police budgets were reversing themselves. In March, a USA Today poll found that nationwide, “Only 18 percent of respondents supported the movement known as ‘defund the police,’ and 58 percent said they opposed it,” adding that “only 28% of Black Americans and 34% of Democrats were in favor of it.” The victor in New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary in June was Eric Adams, a former police officer who ran against “defund the police.” In July, another USA Today poll surveyed residents of Detroit as that city suffered a rapid increase in murders. “By an overwhelming 9–1, they would feel safer with more cops on the street, not fewer,” the newspaper reported. “Though one-third complain that Detroit police use force when it isn’t necessary—and Black men report high rates of racial profiling—those surveyed reject by 3–1 the slogan of some progressives to ‘defund the police.’”

Given bipartisan, pan-racial majorities that oppose “defund the police,” the Democratic Party’s explicit rejection of that framing, and the fact that most Black Americans favor more, better-trained cops on the streets of their neighborhood, not fewer cops in departments with fewer resources to train them, you’d think anti-racists would shift their focus.

Instead, many activists are still doubling down on “defund,” whether in municipal budget disputes or interviews with national publications. Legislators on the Democratic Party’s left flank continue to press the idea at the local, state, and federal levels. The merits of defunding are still taken as self-evident in academic writing, tweets by prominent organizers, and professional PR campaigns.

On July 20, I received an email from Ronja Kleinholz, an account executive at Berlin Rosen, a large PR agency that, according to its website, has offices in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, and represents clients including MGM Resorts, the Ford Foundation, Unicef, Singapore Airlines, and Virgin Hyperloop 1. “With continued talks around addressing rising crime rates and increases in gun violence, activists with the Movement for Black Lives are available to talk about why we must refocus the conversation around defunding the police,” she wrote. “While Republicans focus on fearmongering and blaming disinvestment in policing for rising crime rates, statistics show that police don’t prevent nor stop crime—in fact, they often show up after the crime has already occurred.”

Contrary to those talking points, studies have found that bigger police forces do tend to produce reductions in crime. In the average American city, the NYU economist Morgan Williams told NPR, “larger police forces result in Black lives saved at about twice the rate of white lives saved.” And most people want the police to show up after the fact when they report a crime, in hopes that they will arrive quickly, take a report, and bring the criminal who victimized them to justice.

Indeed, the bipartisan, pan-racial rejection of “defund the police” as a slogan and a policy prescription is inseparable from the surge in murders roiling multiple American cities during the pandemic, recent decades in which falling crime coincided with increases in police funding, and the widespread belief among criminologists that more police officers in a city help reduce crime.

As the progressive journalist Matthew Yglesias recently noted, just the recent increases in annual homicides of Black people are greater in scale than all annual police killings of Black Americans:

According to Mapping Police Violence, there were 1,126 people killed by police officers in 2020. By contrast, the increase in murders in 2020 added 1,907 victims just in the 51 big cities that we have data on. Mapping Police Violence puts on their website that “Black people were 28% of those killed by police in 2020 despite being only 13% of the population” in big text. That is a lot. But nearly half of homicide victims are Black, a greater disproportionality.

The journalist Jill Leovy is the most persuasive proponent of the idea that reducing homicide rates is an urgent matter of racial justice. In the mid-aughts, while she was on staff at the Los Angeles Times, the murders of many marginalized people, most of which received scant mention in the newspaper and little notice from anyone but the victims’ families, inspired her to try to write something about every murder that occurred in Los Angeles County in the course of a year. Additional years on that beat brought her into close contact with homicide detectives and the family members of murder victims.

In the 2015 book Ghettoside, she summed up the lessons she learned from years of such reporting. “This is a book about a very simple idea: where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic,” she wrote. “African Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this, more than anything, is the reason for the nation’s long-standing plague of black homicides.” In her telling, if every murder against a Black man were investigated with energy and rigor, “investigated as if one’s own child were the victim, or as if we, as a society, could not bear to lose these people,” the violence would not be so routine nor the victims so anonymous.

Proponents of abolishing the police believe it to be an inherently oppressive institution. Although Leovy fumed at the ways that over-policing has harmed individuals and whole neighborhoods, she nevertheless discerned, through years of close contact with Black and Latino people who were devastated by murders, something that too many social-justice activists fail to recognize: that under-policing can be devastatingly oppressive to its victims, too.

As Leovy wrote in Ghettoside,

Forty years after the civil rights movement, impunity for the murder of black men remained America’s great, though mostly invisible, race problem. The institutions of criminal justice, so remorseless in other ways in an era of get-tough sentencing and “preventive” policing, remained feeble when it came to answering for the lives of black murder victims.

Few experts examined what was evident every day of John Skaggs’s working life: that the state’s inability to catch and punish even a bare majority of murderers in black enclaves such as Watts was itself a root cause of the violence, and that this was a terrible problem—perhaps the most terrible thing in contemporary American life. The system’s failure to catch killers effectively made black lives cheap.

Other researchers have confirmed that murders of Black victims disproportionately go unsolved. This is precisely the sort of disparity now described in some progressive circles as “structural” or “institutional” racism. By the logic now prevalent on the left, the disproportionate murder of Black people and the disproportionate failure to catch their killers should be a focus of anti-racist activism, and solving those murders should be seen as anti-racist.

Instead, advocates of defunding or abolishing the police buy into a false binary: They regard the police as a fundamentally oppressive force that one can either strengthen, by dedicating more funds to it, or weaken, by starving it of scarce resources that can be spent instead on non-oppressive social goods.

Ghettoside’s great insight is that a community can be over-policed and under-policed at the same time––and that reformers can advocate for an end to over-policing while also championing the proposition that more police resources are required to solve more violent crimes. Defund the war on drugs. Defund stop-and-frisk. But also, fund the homicide bureau and the processing of rape kits and the community-policing initiatives that help people of all classes to feel as safe in their neighborhoods as wealthy Americans do in theirs.

The absence of policing yields not a safe space where marginalized people thrive, but a nasty, brutish place where violent actors either push people around with impunity or are met with violence by someone who forces them to stop. “When people are stripped of legal protection and placed in desperate straits, they are more, not less, likely to turn on each other,” Leovy wrote. “Lawless settings are terrifying; if people can do whatever they want to each other, there are always enough bullies to make it ugly.”

Even with the help of the best PR firms, “defund the police” has little future as a successful slogan or governing program. And I remain a proponent of many other criminal-justice-reform initiatives, like 8 Can’t Wait, with their data-informed emphasis on best practices for local police departments. But at a moment when fear of violent crime is understandably increasing, especially in cities, it might be that the most urgent argument reform advocates can now make is also a political winner: Stop over-policing, but stop under-policing, too. Stop frisking people for furtive movements or arresting people for having a joint, but start funding homicide bureaus adequately and allocating police resources to prioritize the need to solve every murder. Close racial disparities in clearance rates. Black lives matter, so “Solve All Murders.”