“San Francisco is an over-policed city, sending phalanxes of aggressive officers into communities where cops are deeply unpopular to tackle problems they are ill-equipped to resolve.” It’s a compelling narrative, especially in a region that is famously nonconfrontational: If only we took a more hands-off approach to law enforcement, we’d have less crime and healthier communities. The only problem? None of it is true.
In late June, the Board of Supervisors’ Budget and Appropriations Committee agreed to much of Mayor Breed’s proposed police funding in the next city budget, but now the budget goes to the full board for review and approval. The mayor wants to increase spending on police recruitment and retention, while at least three members of the board — Supervisors Dean Preston, Hillary Ronen and Shamann Walton — want our police force defunded. Leading up to August 1, when the board sends its approved version of the budget back to the mayor for signature, there will be multiple opportunities for San Franciscans to make themselves heard.
Now, then, is the time to get our facts straight.
San Francisco only has around 260 active duty police officers per 100,000 residents, excluding officers on leave or assigned to the airport. For comparison, the average rate in the E.U. is almost 340 officers per 100,000 residents, and many countries often held up as models of forward-thinking public safety policy by the defund crowd, like Portugal, well exceed that average.
Why is that? Well, for one thing, countries in the E.U. have decided that science matters. As Texas A&M’s Jennifer Doleac, one of the leading American scholars of law enforcement, puts it, “There is a strong consensus in the literature that hiring more police reduces crime.” It’s important to note that the operative mechanism is deterrence. Findings from study after study tell us that, especially among the young men lacking impulse control who commit the vast majority of crimes, increasing the severity of punishment is less helpful than ramping up the certainty of apprehension. Put a cop on a corner and it’s less likely that someone rolls the dice there on a mugging, a car theft, or a drug sale. In a striking example of this dynamic playing out in the real world, New York University’s Morgan Williams found that cities that expanded their police forces not only saw fewer serious crimes, but also fewer serious crime arrests.
This is a key insight for anyone who is concerned about mass incarceration. E.U. countries have hit upon a successful formula that George Mason University’s Alex Tabarrok sums up as “more police, fewer prisons, less crime.” In the United States, unfortunately, we spend far too much on prisons, and far too little on cops. Although San Francisco’s incarceration rate mirrors the E.U. average moreso than other American cities, if we can responsibly lower that rate further, we should.
We ignore these facts at our own peril — and especially at the peril of minority communities. Young Black men are roughly 15 times more likely to become homicide victims than their white peers in the United States. Williams’s study not only found that each additional police officer results in between 0.06 and 0.1 fewer homicides per year, but adding officers saves Black lives at double that overall rate. The study warns: “Our estimates suggest that defunding the police could result in more deaths, especially among Black Americans.”
None of this is to say that policing reforms, even fundamental ones, aren’t needed. Williams’s study, for example, found that in some cities adding more officers led to more Black residents being arrested for low-level crimes. Another study found that police are much less likely to solve murders of Black or Hispanic victims than white ones. Activists point to these findings and advocate for police-free zones in minority communities. But if we actually ask these communities what they want, instead of telling them what they need, the answer isn’t all that surprising: They want police in their neighborhoods — but they expect to be protected, not harassed and abused.
All of this should lead us to conclude that funding and reform are equally necessary, not equally moot. American police academies graduate officers in as little as 21 weeks; in many other countries, training lasts up to two years, and some even require officers to obtain a college degree. A more mature, diverse, and educated police force that is better trained and staffed is how we overcome the problem of communities being simultaneously over-policed and under-protected.
Too many questions of policy in America are turned into political wedge issues. We need to stop letting hyper-partisans do that to law enforcement and public safety. This is a technical problem with a proven solution that has already been implemented around the world, saving countless lives in the process.
The stakes are too high for us to continue ignoring the evidence.
Jay Donde is a board member of the San Francisco Briones Society (brionessociety.org),
a club promoting bipartisan solutions to urgent problems.