Professor Michael Fortner of Claremont McKenna College explains how most Americans support common sense police reform and public safety.

The Bipartisanship of Police Reform and Public Safety

Public Safety Isn’t Partisan: It’s the Demand Of a Diverse Coalition

By Dr. Michael Javen Fortner – Associate Professor of Government, Claremont McKenna College; In collaboration with Sarah Simionas – The Rose Institute of State and Local Government at CMC

“This concerted nationwide attack on police is nothing less than the gravest assault on the rule of law in modern times,” U.S. Senator Tom Cotton blared a few months ago. In a partisan broadside, he added, “The simple fact is that today’s Democrat Party is pro-riot, anti-cop, and anti-prosecutor. Democrats today have more sympathy for violent criminals than for innocent victims.”  When former Democratic President Barack Obama dubbed “defund the police” a counterproductive “snappy” slogan, U.S. Congresswoman Cori Bush responded, “With all due respect, Mr. President – let’s talk about losing people. We lost Michael Brown Jr. We lost Breonna Taylor. We’re losing our loved ones to police violence.” She pressed, “It’s not a slogan. It’s a mandate for keeping our people alive. Defund the police.” There we have it: a debate where one end of the ideological spectrum considers police reform an existential threat to the rule of law and where the other end sees law enforcement as an existential threat to Black life. Like with so many issues today, these extremes do not represent the bipartisan, cross-racial consensus that exists among the American people. 

The Rise in Violent Crime

Since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, the nation has shifted its gaze from state violence to violent crime. Although crime rates have not returned to the heights of the early 1990s, 2020 witnessed the largest increase in murder rates since 1960 and its effects are being felt across political and racial divides. According to a national Yahoo! News survey from May 2021 57% of Democrats and 73% of Republicans are very or somewhat worried about a “breakdown of law and order in American cities.” In a national Washington Post-ABC News poll from June, 62% of Whites, 58% of Blacks, and 60% of Hispanics considered crime in the United States an extremely or very serious issue. In California, 59% of Democrats and 82% of Republicans say crime is a very important issue to them. This unease cuts across all racial groups: 61% of Whites, 77% of Blacks, 75% of Hispanics, and 67% of Asians prioritize crime. In Minneapolis, where George Floyd’s death ignited a racial awakening, 71% of Whites and 74% of Blacks reported that crime has increased. A recent survey of Detroit residents uncovered that, while few people experienced property crime or interpersonal violence, 74% reported hearing gunshots in their neighborhood. Dread over rising crime is echoing across the U.S. at national, state, and city levels. It’s not simply a media-invented narrative: the fear is broad-based, palpable, and valid. 

Support for Police Reform

Nevertheless, anxiety over crime has not quenched the spirit of reform birthed by police violence and the movement for Black lives. In California, 75% of Democrats and 58% of Republicans say “more jobs and economic opportunity” would prevent violent crime. Overwhelming numbers of Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians felt similarly. Nearly 80% of Democrats and 58% of Republicans believe “more mental health and treatment services would reduce violent crime,” a view also shared across racial groups. These positions are not unique to liberal California. In the national Washington Post-ABC news poll, the majority of Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics believe that having social workers “help police defuse situations with people having emotional problems” would reduce violence somewhat or by a lot. However, his issue was divisive among party lines: 83% of Democrats say it would reduce violence somewhat or by a lot while 54% of Republicans said it would not reduce crime. There was more consensus on structural approaches: 90% of Democrats and 61% of Republicans reported that increasing economic opportunities in poor communities would reduce violence somewhat or by a lot. This view was shared across all racial groups as well. Most Americans – Republicans, Democrats, Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians – insist that community investment and economic opportunity should be part of a reimagined public safety strategy. 

The Problem with “Defund the Police”

However, “defund the police” lacks a broad-based constituency. While the Washington Post-ABC News poll suggested that Democrats, Blacks, and Hispanics did not think that increasing funding for police would reduce violence, local surveys reveal a sustained commitment to policing. In liberal California, only 16% of Whites, 11% of Blacks, 10% of Hispanics, and 10% of Asians believe less funding for police would reduce violent crime. In Minneapolis, 51% of Whites and 75% of Blacks say the city should not reduce the size of its police force. In fact, 52% of Whites and 68% of Blacks say that significantly reducing the size of the police force would have a negative impact. In Detroit, a plurality of Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics indicated that increasing police presence in their neighborhood would make them feel safer. Only 14% of Whites, 8% of Blacks, and 10% of Hispanics said it would make them feel “less safe.” Most Americans – Republicans and Democrats, Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians – see a role for police in a reimagined public safety strategy. 

While recent scholarship and journalism on policing and mass incarceration might cause some to look askance at the consensus in these polling results, these views are not unique to these surveys and this moment. Lisa L. Miller’s historical, comparative study of crime policy in The Myth of Mob Rule: Violent Crime and Democratic Politics reveals that the problem is not what the “mob” feels about crime and punishment but the polity’s attentiveness to mass publics and its capacity to achieve their desires. She demonstrates that public opinion has historically been supportive of both “law and order” and robust social programs. Current political debates and public policy have failed to capture this. Miller warns that when these beliefs are misconstrued and the mob is “hamstrung” in its ability “to coerce the state to minimize such risks, both serious violence and punishment are likely to be higher.”

The Choice of Political Elites

The criminal justice dilemma we face is not the people or their preferences but our politics. The will is there for long-term, structural solutions to urban violence. The will is simultaneously there for short-term, effective, and fair policing: law enforcement that curbs violence and solves crimes while not discriminating against or brutalizing black and brown bodies. Political elites have a choice. They can take to heart the nuanced views of this diverse mob, or they can pursue their short-term interests: exploiting racial tropes or stoking legitimate suspicion towards police among racial minorities. Attending to the cries of the extremes might keep some in power. However, representing the complex views of a less vocal majority just might keep us safe while sparing us from state violence and saving Black lives. 

If you enjoyed this piece, you can find more Divided We Fall op-eds here

Michael Fortner
Associate Professor of Government, Claremont McKenna College | Website | + posts

Michael Javen Fortner is an Associate Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College (CMC).  At CMC, he is co-director of the Dreier Roundtable, faculty affiliate at The Rose Institute of State and Local Government, and faculty affiliate at the Henry Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom in the Modern World.  He is also a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.  His work studies the intersection of American political development and political philosophy—particularly in the areas of race, ethnicity, and class. He is the author of Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment. He has also been published in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Newsweek, and Dissent magazine, and his research has been covered in major media outlets, such as the Atlantic, The New York Times, the New Yorker, New York Magazine, the Daily Beast, Time, WNYC and NPR.

Sarah Simionas
Staff member, The Rose Institute of State and Local Government at CMC | + posts

Sarah G. Simionas is majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Claremont McKenna College (CMC) and is a staff member at The Rose Institute of State and Local Government at CMC. Before joining the Rose, she conducted research on congressional spending practices as a Research Fellow for the CMC Policy Lab in the summer of 2020. Through CMC’s 2021 Summer Research Program, she studied the lobbying practices of American firms. At The Rose, she has worked on the Redistricting team and the Communications team. She has been published in the Inland Empire Outlook

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