America's Police Crisis
Dr. Ed Stringham, Mises Associated Scholar and speaker at our upcoming Boston Mises Circle, writes in the Wall Street Journal on why American's faith in government law-enforcement is at a 20-year low:
Ronald Reagan famously stated, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” But should we apply such thinking to the police? The answer depends on whom we ask. Many liberals who otherwise defend every government program and unionized job believe that the police are increasingly abusing their power. Many conservatives who otherwise complain about unaccountable government officials consider the police department beyond reproach and say that any form of de-policing will make America less safe. Crime has decreased significantly in the past two decades, and many attribute that outcome to the proactive “broken windows” policing first advocated by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in a 1982 article. The theory goes that arresting offenders for minor crimes like loitering or drinking in public leads to a mien of order that in turn discourages major crimes. Citizens will be better off with, and thus prefer, police playing an active role in the community.
Surveys today, though, show citizen confidence in the police at its lowest point in 20 years. It has dropped among Americans of all ages, education levels, incomes and races, with the decreases particularly pronounced among the young and minorities. According to a USA Today/Pew Research Center poll, only 30% of African-Americans say that they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the police, and nine out of 10 say that the “police do an ‘only fair’ or poor job when it comes to equal treatment and appropriate force.” Nine out of 10 Americans surveyed say that officers should be required to wear body cameras to check police violence.
The past month has seen extraordinary killings, both by police officers and of police officers, in St. Paul, Baton Rouge and Dallas. All across the political spectrum, people agree that American policing is in turmoil. But different groups emphasize different aspects of the crisis. Where Black Lives Matter protesters emphasize the danger of being killed by the police, Blue Lives Matter counter-protesters emphasize the risks faced by hard-working policemen. The issues are so polarizing as to leave little room for considered thought or discussion.
As an economist, I’d like to advocate taking a step back and looking at the data to begin to gain some perspective. In 2015, 41 officers were slain in the line of duty. That means the 900,000 U.S. law-enforcement officers face a victimization rate of 4.6 deaths per 100,000 officers. Any number greater than zero is a tragedy, but the average American faces a nearly identical homicide rate of 4.5 per 100,000, and the average male actually faces a homicide rate of 6.6 per 100,000. Being a police officer is thus dangerous but not as dangerous as being an average American male.