If hospitals were run like police departments, doctors would loiter in the lobby to pounce on patients who have mild sprains and stuffy noses while gunshot victims languish in understaffed emergency rooms.
As fatal law enforcement shootings amplify controversial calls to defund the police, communities can sidestep the political rancor by reordering agencies’ priorities instead of slashing their budgets.
In the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, a police officer shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright on April 13 after stopping his car over expired license plates.
Brooklyn Center police said Officer Kim Potter, who’s since resigned and now faces a second-degree manslaughter charge, was trying to arrest Wright on an outstanding warrant and accidentally shot the black man when she mistook her service pistol for a Taser.
Katie Wright recounted a phone call from her son moments before his death, telling news outlets he thought an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror prompted the traffic stop. A New York Times story notes that the common car accessory “may be treated as illegal in a majority of states,” leading to high-risk encounters between cops and motorists.
Police initiated contact with more than 28.9 million drivers and passengers in 2018, the most recent year for which Bureau of Justice Statistics figures are available. Former insurance defense lawyer Brandon F. Jones of Tampa, Florida, says police write roughly 41 million traffic tickets each year, an average of 112,000 a day.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs reports that an estimated 250,000 murders remain unsolved, a number that grows by about 6,000 homicides every year. Despite technological advances in police forensics and DNA testing, the closure rate for rape cases plunged from 62 percent in 1964 to 32 percent in 2017.
If police were to shift resources from patrol to detective divisions and emphasize solving violent crimes over snaring hapless drivers, agencies could resuscitate their public image and reduce the potential for tense traffic stops that end in needless deaths.
Don’t blame your police chief for the disproportionate focus on vehicle infractions. Federal and state governments dole out lucrative grants for participation in enforcement campaigns with catchy names like “Click It or Ticket” and “Obey the Sign or Pay the Fine.” When umbrella agencies incentivize checkpoints and citations, local police tend to follow the money.
Too bad there’s no PR-friendly program with a cutesy rhyme devoted to solving cold-case murders.
The reprioritization premise extends beyond speed traps and seat belt citations. As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March 2020, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby directed prosecutors to dismiss all criminal charges for nonviolent offenses, including drug possession, prostitution, trespassing and having an open alcoholic beverage container in a motor vehicle.
When charges would no longer stick, police largely stopped arresting suspects accused of minor crimes, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison told The Washington Post. The policy coincided with a 20 percent drop in violent crime and a 36 percent decrease in property crime.
While correlation doesn’t equal causation, those statistics defy the broken-windows theory of policing that stresses crackdowns on petty nuisances as a violence-prevention tactic.
A 2015 meta-analysis linked “disorder policing” with lower crime rates, but researchers emphasized that “aggressive order maintenance strategies that target individual disorderly behaviors do not generate significant crime reductions.”
Community policing models that rely on relationship-building and officer visibility can curb crime without the need for large numbers of low-level arrests, the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University concluded in a review of broken-windows theory research.
Policing needs to be reimagined, not defunded. Reform advocates could shatter the left-right paradigm and build broad consensus behind a clarion call to beef up detective bureaus and thin the ranks of road pirates raking in revenue one broken taillight at a time.
Skeptics can’t credibly claim that deprioritizing traffic enforcement and curtailing arrests for victimless offenses is “soft on crime” if redirected resources lead to higher arrest and prosecution rates for murder, rape, robbery, burglary and aggravated assault. The insistence that cops sweat the small stuff to the detriment of complex investigations is what’s really been coddling criminals all along.
Police stations may have little in common with hospitals, but they’d better serve their communities by adopting an emergency department’s triage mentality.
— Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter: @coreywrites. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.