Public Safety Dance
Activists who want to defund the police have it all wrong. They’re held hostage, in Matthew Yglesias’s view, to an austerity mindset. “To the extent that we want the police to solve a larger share of violent crimes, it looks like they need more resources, not fewer,” the tendentious Substack dweller wrote in December 2020. He was all for migrating some police functions over to other agencies, to be carried out by public servants without lethal weapons, but he opposed cutting police funding: that, he wrote, could only ever be a meaningless punishment.
About seventeen months later, in early 2022, the White House issued a spending challenge that turns the concept of “defund” on its head, urging states and cities to put away $10 billion in American Rescue Plan funds for public safety projects by summertime, “when crime rates typically surge.” The $10 billion is only what states have committed to use. A total of $350 billion in Covid-19 relief money from ARPA is now eligible for law enforcement uses, and plenty more has already been spent on creating new cops and new jail beds. In July, Biden doubled down, unveiling a “Safer America Plan,” which calls for Congress to commit a further $37 billion to help police departments hire and train an additional one hundred thousand officers over the next five years.
Several city leaders are following a similar blueprint by investing aggressively in cop-centric “public safety” plans. Most visible has been New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who in January announced an anti-gun violence plan that will combine investments in job training and mental health with the creation of new police units and funding for more officers on the beat.
These initiatives, sponsored by Democrats, have bipartisan support, bad-faith though it may be: Republicans, not a single one of whom voted for ARPA, stood and clapped when Biden announced hundreds of billions of dollars for police during his State of the Union address. Voters across the aisle are certain to like these initiatives, too, at least in the abstract. One NBC poll earlier this year found that three-quarters of respondents would support political candidates who pledged to increase funding to the police.
As the nation struggles with inflation and the imminent threat of a recession, this kind of spending looks optimistic, ambitious. It pumps money into police-driven programs, while also growing funding for a few substantial non-police projects in the process. In Yglesias’s myopic view, we should feel the gloom of austerity retreat right now as the Biden administration reboots the criminal justice system and expands the official meaning of “public safety.” It doesn’t feel like anti-austerity, though. Police, jails, and supervision systems are adept at creating programs where new money can go. But a program, at best, is not a reason to live.
At this moment, someone is leaving a jail. That individual, like this country, is in a moment of crisis. Passing between custody and freedom is a moment of great risk—the moment of starting over. It is here that the system of supervised release steps in to save their life. Prisons are (at least somewhat intentionally) harmful institutions; release is supposed to be the opposite. A “community supervision” officer provides structure by imposing a series of requirements, including: check in regularly, don’t associate with others who have felony records, and get a job—any job—now.
Community supervision gives an individual a new life, one where they are employed, their urgent health issues attended to, and their “pro-social” human connections bolstered, all via the exertion of a little personal responsibility. When individuals fail to live up to the court’s prescribed future, the court extends their period of supervision, or applies pressure on them to succeed by threatening them with re-incarceration.
The problem is that the jobs these days aren’t very good. While the number of people with felony records ballooned over the last few decades to at least twenty-four million, unionization levels in the sectors where they tend to find work have dropped, according to the Prison Policy Initiative (where, full disclosure, I work, though the views expressed here are my own). Wages across the board have stagnated. Even lauded programs that train qualified prisoners for software jobs have been criticized for shunting their graduates into subpar positions. It is all too easy for corporations to exploit employees’ felony records to limit their salaries and opportunities, which serves to maintain a class of disposable labor.
Supervision nudges an individual into an “acceptable” lifestyle, generally at the bottom of the food chain, within a society where corporations exert ever more control over daily life. It’s supposed to make people better, but many describe the experience as so torturous that they would rather just be in prison. Many others die—from gaps in health care, from being uninsured and poor, from conditions that worsened in prison—and at rates over twelve times higher than the average person in the United States.
In the best case scenario, a person under supervision can have everything an unsupervised person has—except for their agency. We can expect that to have all the “public safety” money can buy will be similarly unpleasant.
Liberals believe in the fusion of a well-funded police force and a network of nonprofits and government agencies on constant lookout for “high-risk” individuals: a public safety machine. Biden’s $350 billion gift to public safety projects funds this vision. As a White House press release explains, the $10 billion that states and municipalities have committed to spending will enable a variety of projects, but the most important, the most prestigious, will be “accountable community policing” and “evidence-based community violence intervention programs.”
The press release explains what a few specific states and cities will be using their public safety dollars for. Detroit has received $110 million. The package includes $7 million for gunshot detection technology that sets up live microphones in public places and $5 million for body cameras, which police departments typically adopt for self-interested reasons. It funds $30 million worth of police patrols. It provides an unspecified amount to a police training facility. Lastly, it gives $11 million to “expanded mental health co-response” and $12 million to “community outreach gun violence prevention.”
Kansas City and Tampa are getting tens of millions of dollars that will go entirely to police salaries and swag. Houston, meanwhile, has received $52 million, of which $11 million is clearly earmarked for cops—the rest is mostly a mix of community violence intervention and “mental health and domestic violence response and victim service efforts” (a mix of cop and non-cop initiatives, most likely).
The non-cop programs funded by ARPA are meant to ease the burden on police, according to the White House. Many if not most of them are unproven quantities where the program “model” is just a piece of advertising: these programs might be effective methods of reducing gun violence and caring for people with mental illness, or they might not, depending on the system design and who happens to be in charge in a given city. Take Crisis Intervention Teams, a name for programs that train cops alongside mental health professionals. Today, according to NPR reporter Alisa Roth’s Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness, “there are as many versions of CIT programs as there are cities.” People generally think the point of CIT is to send mental health professionals along with officers to the scene of a crisis, but many CIT programs do not do that. A 2016 meta-analysis of CIT programs’ effectiveness found that they reduced neither arrests of, nor incidents of force against, people with mental illness.
There is a conservative why of policing that deserves a mention at this point. The right-wing view of policing today is that cops are fighting this country’s most important battles—against illegal immigration and against anarchists. According to the Blue Lives Matter philosophy, cops are an existential necessity, a symbol of American freedom in much the same way “the troops” have long been. Liberals, who have spent the last two years acknowledging that police officers regularly gun down civilians, are restricted in their ability to parrot these talking points.
But there is a contemporary liberal why of policing as well, one that many conservatives are happy to support because it delivers money to cops. The way liberals see it, you can manipulate the state’s monopoly on violence to deliver a variety of goods and services, up to and including health care. President Biden’s $350 billion to public safety breathes life into this why, amounting to a New-Deal-style program for his vision of the police. The most suspicious aspect of this vision is that it uses nonviolent-sounding programs like “accountable community policing” as cover to increase the number of law enforcement officers with guns. But it’s worth noting that even as community-based, trauma-informed, data-driven criminal justice programs—the nice-sounding ones—expand, tragedies are continuing to take place on their watch.
Consider Marion County, Indiana. In January, officials unveiled a brand new detention facility. “There are things we have done in this building that no one’s done across the country yet,” a law enforcement official told TV reporters. “I think what we’ve done here is going to set the example for how future jails are built and . . . how inmates are handled.” But the facility, with all its technological splendor, outfitted with the most advanced mental health and substance abuse treatment programs known to jail experts, was not able to stop a death just days after it opened. Shortly before 7 a.m. on Monday, January 17, one of the first men to be transferred to the new jail took his own life in his cell inside the special detox unit.
What keeps people from killing themselves? None of the answers that spring to mind—hopes and dreams, human connections, a sense of purpose—are things that a jail can provide. (And, as should go without saying, incarceration separates people from their loved ones and often interrupts their medication schedules.) This isn’t to say that no one’s life can be saved in a jail or a police station. But as more and more counties build new “state of the art” jails, suicides inside them are trending up. The mass hopelessness and despair in this country is a crisis jails can, at most, hope to contain. How many lives can be saved in a society that is overflowing with woefully inadequate, perennially underfunded programs, but has nothing to offer in the way of love?
Ten billion dollars sounds high, to say nothing of $350 billion, but it is nowhere close to the amount of money needed to solve the major problems plaguing the country. Employers steal an estimated $50 billion from their employees every year. The IRS estimates that the United States loses $1 trillion in unpaid taxes every year, mostly from large corporations. Biden’s plan to refund the police is a quiet admission by our liberal government that it does not have the will to tackle these major injustices; the best it can, or wants to do, is bolster the power of the police.
And where “public safety” money goes, it leaves a trace. Whatever the fate of these programs and police facilities created with the ARPA money, they will always be correctional programs, will always be cages. The more our government funds “solutions” that are shy of what communities actually need, the harder it will become to fund anything less coercive and less brutal. The number of people whose jobs depend on jails and prisons means they’re very hard facilities to shut down, so even if crime declines, and the prisoners stop coming in, the facilities remain and serve some other foul purpose—like the empty Massachusetts jail beds that have been turned into forced drug treatment centers.
Funding the police was sold to us as anti-austerity. Yet all too predictably, austerity continues its march throughout society. Programs that could protect people from climate change, poverty, homelessness, hunger, drug addiction, and death are failing or else go unfunded by a Democrat-controlled Congress incapable of taking the necessary action. Meanwhile, the mandate of police is widening, adding fuel to the system that already “corrects” millions of people every year by forcing them to accept a dead-end job and a disappointing life.
We’re going to hear more about how funding the police is really, truly a good thing, about how police still “need more resources, not fewer” if we’re to make America “great again.” But what about reality? Two years after a police officer murdered George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for eight minutes, a year after fatal police shootings hit a high watermark, the criminal justice system now has access to a pool of $350 billion, a sum 50 percent larger than the since-expired 2021 Child Tax Credit. Defunding the police certainly would be a punishment; Yglesias put his finger on that part. But more than that—it’s the only thing that will save our lives.