Submitted by Charles Lipson
For several years now, progressives have waged a war on law enforcement
Preventing crime and punishing offenders is primarily the responsibility of local authorities. They have no greater obligation to the citizens who elected them and who fund the government.
It is up to local police, supervised by political leaders and subject to the law themselves, to provide a safe environment for citizens to go about their lives, pursuing their own goals in peace and security. It is up to local politicians to ensure that police are adequately funded and properly trained. It is up to local prosecutors to follow up all justified arrests and prosecute offenders when the evidence is adequate. When police overstep their limits, prosecutors should pursue them too. The goal is a safe environment, subject to the rule of law.
But in city after city across America, politicians have failed to meet this basic responsibility.
Although the failure is primarily local, it damages the Democratic Party at every level for at least three reasons. First, surging crime is now a top priority for voters. That’s damaging to the party in power. It’s even more damaging when that party is perceived as “soft on crime.” That’s the second reason, and it hurts the Democrats, who control the mayor’s office, city council, and prosecutor’s office of nearly every city in the country. Third, for years, leading Democrats have signaled the superior virtue on these issues by attacking the criminal justice system as systemically racist, condemning police, cutting police budgets and urging much lighter sentences for criminal offenses. They won major changes to local bail systems, permitting people with long records of violent crimes to gain quick release after posting negligible cash bonds. When the country was beset by riots in 2020, Democrats held a four-day nominating convention in Milwaukee without mentioning the chaos and violence.
In short, the national party and local leaders marched in lockstep on these issues, a march led by progressives and “Justice Democrats.” It is hardly surprising that voters associate these policies with Democrats, locally and nationally. The Biden administration reinforced that view when it refused to stop the flood of illegal immigration or even call the migration “illegal.”
Voters recognize that police can, and sometimes do, abuse their power. They want to make sure officers are well trained and use force properly, without bias or excess. They want bad apples tossed out and prosecuted if necessary. But progressive politicians have gone far beyond these appropriate remedies. They have constrained police from protecting people and property and repeatedly failed to prosecute those who shoot, rob, mug, assault and threaten the innocent. They have increased the constraints on law enforcement while decreasing the penalties for crime — with predictable results.
Democratic politicians and their activist supporters justify these failures under the banner of “social justice” and “anti-racism.” Their idea is that it is somehow wrong to enforce democratically-approved laws or use agreed legal procedures if the criminals come from disadvantaged groups (racial, ethnic, or income).
That justification is so threadbare that few politicians state it openly. They leave implicit the idea that even violent crimes can be overlooked if the criminals are poor minorities. That point was driven home last week when Republican senator John Kennedy of Louisiana asked one of Biden’s nominees for a federal judgeship, “Do you think we should forgive criminal misbehavior in the name of social justice?” The nominee, a law professor, refused to answer. So Kennedy asked it again. Ultimately, he asked the same question nine times and never got a straight answer from judicial nominee Anne Traum.
That question should have been an easy one for any law professor and certainly for any prospective judge. When the nominee could not answer it, the Biden administration should have withdrawn the nomination. They haven’t, of course. Onward they march, waving the banner of “social justice.”
Their justification fails for two reasons. First, it is a basic principle of Western law, both Anglo-Saxon and Continental, that people should not be treated differently because of their skin color, income or social status. That’s what equality before the law means. That’s one reason we condemn the Jim Crow South’s treatment of blacks and the permission that gave whites to harm them. Second, the poor, whatever their race, deserve to live in safe communities, too. They deserve protection from predators who rob them at gunpoint, steal their cars, plunder their local stores and stage shootouts in residential neighborhoods. All too often, it is the innocent poor who suffer from these crimes, sometimes directly (as in drive-by shootings), sometimes indirectly (as in stores that close in dangerous neighborhoods or hire extra security guards and rise prices). This impact on poor communities is why the cry of “social justice” rings hollow. Don’t the innocent poor deserve “social justice,” too? Don’t they deserve a safe streets and schools?
Politicians representing these communities recognized those rights in the Eighties and Nineties, when the crack cocaine epidemic spurred a surge in crime. It was African-American leaders who led the effort to strengthen law enforcement during the Clinton administration. Local authorities, led by New York City, played a complementary role, mainly by implementing a more effective policing strategy.
That strategy, known as “Broken Windows,” was developed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. It assumed most criminals began with petty violations and escalated if those went unpunished. The iconic example was “turnstile jumpers,” who leapt over subway toll gates. New York decided to stop these small violations, not to collect more transit fares but to prevent escalation to more serious crimes and to signal the city would not tolerate rampant lawlessness. For related reasons, New York and other cities instituted “stop and frisk” policies to catch people who might be carrying guns illegally and to deter others from doing so. Those policies worked well and reduced crime (and improved the quality of life) in city after city.
But they carried a heavy cost, socially and politically. They entailed arresting and imprisoning lots of young, African-American men. The same population was stopped and frisked more often, which meant that many innocent minority men were searched. They felt demeaned and possibly targeted for their race.
The criticism was that these policing strategies were discriminatory. Whether they actually were depends partly on whether police were well trained and partly on the underlying distribution of criminal violations. The most incendiary claims — that black men were targeted for racial reasons, not for their behavior — were never substantiated. That meant little to progressive activists, who weren’t interested in statistical comparisons or underlying rates of criminal behavior. They were furious that large numbers of minority men, especially African Americans, were searched, arrested, and ultimately convicted and sent to prison. They demanded relief.
Progressive politicians provided that relief at every level — city, state, and federal. Many were the same politicians who once sponsored the now-reviled policies. They never admitted that they’d changed their minds or reversed their positions. They simply blamed the policies they once backed on white racism and claimed the Clinton-era reforms were the fruits of America’s long history of discrimination.
For several years now, progressives have waged this war on law enforcement, determined to change it in fundamental ways. From Philadelphia to San Francisco, they have implemented tectonic changes, essentially decriminalizing large portions of the criminal code.
Voters in those cities endorsed the new program — until recently. They elected the mayors, who chose the police commissioners. They elected progressive prosecutors in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, St. Louis and more. It’s true that George Soros and like-minded progressives provided campaign financing, but the voters themselves made the choice. They liked the message, perhaps thinking it was a low-cost way to signal their virtue, their solidarity with movements like Black Lives Matter.
They have learned that the cost is far steeper than they imagined. Murders are at record levels in dozens of major cities. Brazen shoplifting and smash-and-grab robberies are a daily occurrence.
Faced with that grim reality, even the most left-wing politicians have begun to change their message. That change has been visible in the last two months. The mayors of both San Francisco and Oakland have urged larger police budgets and more active policing. In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed and where national protests began, voters just turned down a major effort to defund the police. New York just elected a former police officer as mayor. The issue has become so prominent that even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi finally condemned the crime wave.
Pelosi and her party must hope they can sway voter perceptions, erase their memories of years of bad policies and dreadful consequences. Of course, Republicans will try hard to keep those memories alive. The more killings, the more carjackings, the more smash-and-grab robberies, the easier it will be for Republicans to make that case. Expect public safety to be a major issue in the 2022 elections.
Submitted by Charles Lipson. He is the Peter B. Ritzma professor of political science emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics and Security.