Justice Reformers Need to Update Their Priors

As a long decline in murder rates reverses, proponents of draconian law enforcement shouldn’t be allowed to monopolize the discussion.

Police behind caution tape.
Adria Malcolm / The New York Times / Redux

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

For most of this century, America’s debate about policing took place against a backdrop of falling murder rates. But in 2020, the U.S. murder rate rose 30 percent from 2019. Now the earliest figures from 2021 are in––and in many cities murders are still rising.

These are uncomfortable facts for those of us who argue against the “tough on crime” excesses of the 1980s and ’90s. We neither anticipated nor can confidently explain the recent explosion of murders, and the changing facts on the ground may force us to change our priorities.

For two decades, year-over-year declines in murders, and crime more generally, created political space for necessary reforms to police practices—and also for radical and politically damaging talk of abolishing the police. Last summer, as crime statistics worsened, I proposed a different slogan: “Solve All Murders.” If you are opposed, as I am, to mass incarceration and stop-and-frisk policing, you need to embrace some kind of strategy to improve crime-fighting in the short term. Proponents of draconian law enforcement will happily fill any vacuum, and voters will sideline any faction that doesn’t offer a plausible remedy for a growing problem.

As last year ended, numerous major cities noted alarming murder trends. Chicago saw 797 homicides in 2021, ABC News reported: “25 more than were recorded 2020, 299 more than in 2019 and the most since 1996.” In Philadelphia, “559 people were murdered in 2021, the most in the city's history,” according to NBC. In Los Angeles, “as of Dec. 29, there had been 392 homicides … the most of any year since 2007,” the Los Angeles Times reported. In Houston, the local ABC affiliate reported an 18 percent rise in murders over the previous year. A national ABC News roundup found that Austin recorded its highest murder total since 1984; Portland, Oregon, its highest total since 1987; and Rochester, New York, its highest total since 1991.

Less widely reported is the fall in fatal shootings by police. The Washington Post’s tracking project recorded fewer of those last year, 888, than any other year in its history. (The effort began in 2015 and in 2020 recorded 1,021 police killings.)

The criminologist Peter Moskos believes that today’s inverse relationship—more murders, fewer police killings—is noteworthy. “Usually, police-involved shootings go up and down with violent crime. There are just more shooters on the street shooting,” he told me. “The fact they do not in 2021 is really unusual.” He believes both trends reflect the same underlying phenomenon: police disengagement. In his telling, “Fewer police interactions, stops, and arrests mean fewer things that could go wrong. It also seems to mean more violence and cops shooting less often.” If he’s right, there are at least two reasons police shootings can fall—because of less crime or because of less policing—and only the former saves lives.

And even if he’s wrong about that relationship, police killings remain a tiny percentage of overall killings in many populous jurisdictions. New York City, for example, counted 485 murders, while the Washington Post database lists just five fatal police shootings. Dig into press reports on those police killings, and you find that one allegedly began with a man with a large knife attacking a woman in the middle of the street and that another occurred after officers repeatedly told a man to drop his gun, which he instead began to raise toward them. In the third case, officers reportedly observed three men with gunshot wounds and soon after “found a man crouched on the sidewalk and holding a firearm in his left hand.” The NYPD says the man was told to drop his weapon and failed to comply, and that there is body-camera footage of the incident. The fourth case involved a mentally ill man who allegedly lunged at officers with a kitchen knife and had previously encountered police during a suicide attempt. (I’m not sure that police actually killed anyone in the fifth case––the press reports that the Post cites don’t seem to warrant that conclusion.)

I’d like to think that the NYPD’s low rate of fatal shootings is due not to underpolicing, which inevitably yields more murders, but to unusually good protocols and training that other jurisdictions should mimic. Regardless, I have trouble imagining a city of 8.8 million doing better, in terms of police killings, than New York did in 2021.

In contrast, Rochester, which has a population of about 211,000, also had four fatal police shootings in 2021, according to the Washington Post database. That radically higher rate per 100,000 residents should be reason enough for its leaders to review their training and use-of-force policies and perhaps to bring them in line with the presumptively superior ones in New York City––though with Rochester homicides skyrocketing in the past five years, murders should be priority No. 1 there, too. Cutting the number of murders by 10 percent this year would save eight lives. Eliminating police killings would save half as many.

I’m not asserting an inevitable trade-off––Detroit managed to have fewer police killings and fewer murders in 2021 than it did in 2020. But as the crime researcher Harold Pollack has previously noted, reform advocates, such as those in the Black Lives Matter movement, have not put “the same emphasis on identifying good police practices that should be replicated that they place on identifying bad police practices that must be curbed.” Ideally, Rochester leaders would find a strategy that reduces crime and police killings in unison, something else New York City achieved during the aughts. And Los Angeles County really ought to bring in a use-of-force consultant from the NYPD. Its population of about 10 million is not much greater than New York City’s, yet various law-enforcement agencies there killed 37 people in 2021, according to a Los Angeles Times database.

More generally, on matters as varied as support for body cameras, demilitarization, ending the War on Drugs, limiting civil asset forfeiture, sending better responders to calls involving mentally ill people, constraining the ability of police unions to negotiate beyond pay and benefits, and more, my positions are unchanged.

But there’s a strong substantive and political case for a bigger focus on murders. Substantively, reversing the upward trend in murders is a matter of urgency. As the Los Angeles Times editorial board recently noted, “Violence surely affects not just the dead, their families and their neighborhoods. It extends outside city limits and across age and socioeconomic lines … Homicides affect our economy, our quality of life and our collective psyche, all things that were already under the cruel assault of COVID-19.” And as with the pandemic, violent crime disproportionately burdens the poor and vulnerable.

Politically, I fear that advocates of excessive or counterproductive responses to crime will become the most conspicuous voices in the discussion of how to deal with rising murder rates. As the writer Megan McArdle has pointed out, “The scale of the killings is recapitulating the worst moments of the United States’ 20th-century urban crisis. And if we can’t stop it, we’ll also end up with the kind of over-the-top political response that we have spent decades regretting.” Bringing back stop-and-frisk would violate the constitutional rights of many innocents and harm relations between police and the communities they rely on for witnesses, whatever the policy’s other effects. A new emphasis on trying to solve all murders need not violate rights or alienate large swaths of the community, and could quell the violence that erupts when people who do not trust the justice system seek to settle scores privately.

The persistence of violence in low-income communities is a collective failure. Reversing it should be a top priority for every faction in American politics, and a first step is for all of us to reexamine and update priors formed during the long but now bygone era of declining murders.