Many advocates of “defunding the police” contend that too many police encounters with civilians concern trivial matters. Defunding proponents worry that poor decisions by officers can escalate tensions and lead to unnecessary uses of force. They argue that the police mandate should be more narrowly focused on responding to “serious” crimes, especially violent felonies. All other matters should not be considered police business. This premise has gained a receptive hearing in our political climate. Most people instinctively support the idea of leaving management of serious felonies to the police, who are certainly less likely to get into trouble if their job is simply to arrest violent felons.
But American policing has tried this idea before, and the results were disastrous for communities and police agencies alike. If history is any guide, confining police focus to serious crimes will do little to manage those offenses — and the strategy may further damage the relationship between police and citizens.
In the early 1900s, American policing was in turmoil. Political patronage largely determined which officers were hired, fired and promoted. Officers themselves were often underqualified, poorly trained and inadequately supervised. The mid-20th century saw a wave of policing reforms across the United States. Reformers sought to remove corrupting influences and to professionalize police with a more specific mandate. Thus was born the image of the “professional crime fighter” — the impartial law-enforcement officer, objectively remote from citizens, who could bring to justice those accused of serious crimes.
William H. Sousa, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and director of the Center for Crime and Justice Policy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. This piece originally appeared in City Journal.
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