How cities can tackle violent crime and defund the police

One of the most robust findings in criminology is that putting more police officers on the streets leads to less violent crime. Yet, as recent police killings and violence against protestors have reminded us, policing also produces staggering costs that many communities are no longer willing to bear. These seemingly incongruous views represent a tension at the core of any efforts to reform, defund, or abolish policing.

Few scholars have wrestled with this tension as rigorously as Princeton University sociologist Patrick Sharkey. In his 2018 book, Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence, Sharkey makes the case that the decline in violent crime in America over the past three decades is one of the most important social transformations of our time. At the same time, he argues the US’s chosen methods for responding to violence have become far too destructive, and offers an alternative vision for public safety that relies primarily on communities and residents, not law enforcement.

We are currently being forced to confront a question that has animated Sharkey’s work for years: How can we continue to reduce violence, but do so using a model that relies far less on police and prisons? That’s a much harder question than simply asking whether some of the jobs police currently perform can be replaced — and it demands an even more rigorous answer, especially considering the extent to which high levels of violence can devastate disadvantaged communities.

I recently spoke to Sharkey about what’s causing the uptick in gun violence in big US cities, whether there is an inevitable trade-off between reducing police presence and reducing violence, his vision for a community-driven approach to public safety (and the evidence base behind that vision), what he thinks the “defund the police” campaign gets right (and wrong), and more.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Roge Karma

Can you describe the “uneasy peace” that we are currently living through?

Patrick Sharkey

Since the 1990s, violence has fallen by roughly half across the country. In a number of cities like New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Dallas, San Diego, and San Francisco, violence has fallen by 70 or 80 percent. Even places we still think of as violent — Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland — have seen violence fall by between a third and a half.

These changes have transformed city life as we know it. As violence falls, public life starts to return. Parents let their kids play outside, libraries fill up, shopping districts become more lively. Academic performance rises; young people are less likely to drop out. Families invest in neighborhoods as they become safe, and businesses return.

There’s causal evidence that children growing up in cities where violence is declining are more likely to rise up in the income distribution when they reach adulthood and move out of poverty. In short, when violence falls, cities start to return to life, and the greatest benefits are experienced by the most disadvantaged segments of the population.

But the paradox is that the methods we’ve relied on to deal with violence — primarily aggressive policing and mass incarceration — have had staggering costs. They have left millions of Americans enmeshed in the prison system with consequences that affect not only the people who are involved in the system but also their families and the next generation.

For several decades now, we’ve asked police departments to dominate public spaces through any means necessary. The police violence that has become so visible recently is a function of that task; the controversy, the attention, the unrest, the anger toward policing is a response to a strategy to reduce violence that has been intact for several decades now.

That’s what I mean when I’m talking about the peace being uneasy: Violence has fallen, but we need a new method to address it going forward.

A protestor demonstrates against police brutality in New York City on May 11 following the killing of Ahmaud Arbery.
B.A. Van Sise/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Roge Karma

That’s a good segue into our current moment. Multiple cities are currently experiencing a sharp uptick in shootings and homicides — some of which is being blamed on efforts to delegitimize police authority and reduce police presence. So I’m wondering: Is that the trade-off we face? If we try to scale back policing, is rising violence the inevitable byproduct?

Patrick Sharkey

It’s not an inevitable trade-off.

To be clear, there is a pattern of violence rising in the aftermath of these kinds of high-profile protests against police brutality. This happened after Freddie Gray in Baltimore, after Michael Brown in Ferguson, and it’s clearly happening now. But that doesn’t mean that protests against police cause violence to rise. It also doesn’t mean police are the only institution capable of confronting violence. It means that when we rely primarily on police to respond to all forms of violence and then police stop playing that role, neighborhoods become destabilized.

That happens for a few different reasons. One is that police make a conscious decision to step back from their role in being the primary institution responsible for public safety. That might happen due to increased scrutiny on policing. It might happen due to shifts in policy, like the fact that NYPD dismantled their plainclothes anti-crime units that respond to many serious forms of violent crime. It also may happen because law enforcement is slowing down intentionally to make a statement.

A second piece is that residents may be less likely to work with the police, defer to the police, or cooperate with investigations. Young people may come to the conclusion that this city doesn’t care about me — I’m not playing by the rules anymore. People obey the law when they believe it’s legitimate; when the belief in the legitimacy of this institution is undermined, that can result in a rise of violence.

None of this implies people should stop protesting police brutality. It means that the methods we’ve historically used to reduce violence are unsustainable, and we need to start thinking of a strategy for confronting violence that relies a lot less on those methods.

Roge Karma

Let’s talk about that strategy. Can you paint me a picture of what an alternative model of public safety would look like that didn’t rely so heavily on police?

Patrick Sharkey

There’s a basic conclusion from the research on what creates safe neighborhoods: Police are effective at reducing violence, but they aren’t the only ones who are effective.

There’s lots of evidence telling us that other core institutions in a community — institutions that are driven by residents and local organizations — can play a central role in controlling violence. But we’ve never thought of these organizations and residents as the central actors responsible for creating safe streets, so we’ve never given them the same commitment and the same resources that we give to law enforcement and the criminal legal system. When we talk about how to respond to violence, the default response in the US is always to focus on the police and the prison.

The next model should be one driven primarily by residents and local organizations as the central actors. Police still certainly have a role to play, but responding to violent crime takes up only a tiny fraction of police officers’ time. So the idea here is that we can rely on residents and local organizations to take over most of the duties that [officers] currently handle and make sure neighborhoods are safe.

Roge Karma

The critique you’ll often hear on this is that the evidence base for some of these community-based methods for reducing violent crime is not nearly as robust as the evidence base behind policing as a way to reduce violent crime. How do you respond to that?

Patrick Sharkey

I agree that the research on the effectiveness of policing on crime is strong. But the motivation for developing a new model for how to deal with violence is the observation that while police may have been effective in controlling violence, that has come with significant costs, which aren’t accounted for in any of those studies. It’s come with the type of aggressive, and sometimes violent, policing that I think most of the country is no longer willing to tolerate. Policing as a method to confront violence is now seen as unacceptable by a large chunk of the population.

I would also dispute that the evidence base for the alternative approach focused on community actors and institutions is not as strong. We now have a pretty well-established base of evidence telling us that residents and local organizations are at least as effective as the police in controlling violence.

The programs run out of the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago, all of which are run as randomized controlled trials, are extraordinarily effective. The Becoming a Man and Choose to Change programs, which rely on a combination of mentoring and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), reduce participants’ involvement in violence by about 50 percent. Summer jobs programs have led to over 40 percent decreases in violence.

The READI program, which provides adults most at risk of becoming a victim or perpetrator of gun violence with transitional employment and CBT, is currently under evaluation, but the early results have shown extraordinary potential. Community-based programs that redesigned randomized abandoned lots in Philadelphia to become public spaces reduced violence in and around those lots by around 30 percent.

The Cure Violence programs, which have been cited as if they always work, do have a more mixed evidence base. I think it is important to be very transparent about that — they don’t work every single time. Still, this can be a very effective model. Programs in New York, Baltimore, and elsewhere have been rigorously evaluated and shown to be extremely effective at reducing violence.

There’s also national data on this. I carried out a study on the role that the expansion of the nonprofit sector played in contributing to the crime drop. What we found was that in a given city with 100,000 people, every new organization formed to confront violence and build stronger neighborhoods led to about a 1 percent drop in violent crime and murder. So the expansion nonprofits focused on building stronger communities and working against violence played a big role in contributing to the crime drop.

The evidence base for a community response to violence is at least as strong as the evidence base for policing. That’s why I don’t really think it’s about the evidence base — I think it’s about a mindset. In America, policy discussions about violence focus so intently on the police and the prison as the default responses. We’ve been investing in these methods for so long, it’s all we know — it’s hard to even imagine a different response to violence.

A group of violence interrupters head into a neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland, to greet residents and raise awareness about the city’s Safe Streets program to reduce gun violence.
Andre Chung/Washington Post via Getty Images

Roge Karma

I want to talk about that mindset. In Uneasy Peace, you talk about our historic approach to issues like violence, poverty, and inequality as one of “punishment and abandonment” and warn that if we focus on only addressing the “punishment” side of things but ignore making investments in abandoned communities, then reform efforts will ultimately fail.

I think this framework applies to conversations around “defunding the police.” If the goal is to just reduce the injustices that come with policing, then slashing police budgets works great. But it strikes me that this strategy could also lead to an uptick in overall violence levels if it’s not paired with investments in alternative mechanisms for reducing violence.

Can you walk us through that broader framework and how it may apply today?

Patrick Sharkey

Calls to defund or dismantle the police are really about how we deal with an institution that is seen as racist and anti-democratic; what I’ve argued for is to shift the focus toward how we can most effectively create safe and strong communities. When we make that shift, it forces us to think about not just how to scale back police shootings but what active steps need to be taken to make sure that communities are safe and everyone is welcomed.

For the past 50 years, our model of responding to concentrated urban poverty has been abandonment and punishment. We’ve ignored the challenges of urban inequality and responded by scaling up the policing and prison systems. Over time, there has been a recognition of the injustice those systems, so we’ve moved toward a model that is trying to gradually scale them back. That means we have moved away from a focus on punishment and toward a focus on justice. But if we just focus solely on justice, then we’re going to end up with a situation where communities don’t have the basic investments that they need to be strong, stable, and safe.

That’s my motivation for a different approach: to focus not only on justice but also on the investments that are needed to create safe neighborhoods. I agree entirely that just scaling back the budgets of police departments is going to leave us with neighborhoods that are more vulnerable to a rise in violence. That’s why I make the case for investments in a different set of institutions driven by residents and local organizations that can play a central role in creating safe streets and strong communities.

That’s the step we haven’t taken. We started the conversation about scaling back the excesses of law enforcement and the criminal legal system. But we haven’t had the conversations about the investments that are needed to make sure neighborhoods are safe and no one falls through the cracks.

Roge Karma

Let’s have that conversation. You’ve called for “a demonstration project that is both more cautious and more radical than the call to defund the police.” Can you outline that for me?

Patrick Sharkey

Instead of calling for a rapid change where we dismantle police departments and immediately shift all police responses to other entities, the idea here is to try to maintain stability in communities at a time when violence is rising, but also start to plan for what an alternative model for dealing with violence might look like.

There are a few steps. Begin with a community within a city where the police are not seen as a legitimate institution — where residents are looking for an alternative to law enforcement. There has to be buy-in from the community where this is implemented and it has to be driven by members of that community. Second, establish a “community quarterback”: a single coalition of organizations that are brought together and see it as their responsibility to make sure all public spaces are safe in their community.

Third, provide funding to that organization equal to what law enforcement would be provided in that precinct. For instance, each of Washington, DC’s 50-plus police service areas receives, on average, about $10 million per year to fund a workforce of roughly 80 full-time employees for a population of around 12,000. That’s the kind of commitment I’m asking for: the same level of commitment that we give law enforcement. For far too long, we’ve asked community groups to mobilize to respond to violence on the cheap, often without any resources or compensation.

Then allow this new organization to decide how it wants to hire, train, and deploy its resources to deal with all of the incidents that that police departments currently deal with: mental health crises, young people dealing drugs, small-scale altercations that occur outside bars or other hot spots, drug addiction.

Lastly, make a long-term commitment to this new coalition; I’m calling for a 10-year commitment. Give it a chance to fail. Give it a chance to go through scandals and mishaps and bumps along the way, and know that it’s still going to be there in 10 years. There’s no easy way to respond to every challenge in a community. There’s gonna be problems along the way. So it’s really a mayor and a funder that have to be willing to go through these challenges and stick with an organization.

Now, communities may decide that there are places where armed responders are still necessary, like gun violence, and could choose what kind of relationship they want with the local police department accordingly. But in those places, we could imagine a model where even for situations where police are first to respond, they would need to respond with a member of this community coalition with them. Then, for all other 99 percent of incidents, the members of this coalition would be the first to respond to incidents in public space.

That’s the proposal: Give an alternative coalition of residents and organizations a chance to play a central role in creating a safe community and give them the resources that we devote to law enforcement. I just have to believe that, based on the evidence we have, that coalition would be at least as effective as law enforcement, and controlling violence and would come without the costs of law enforcement.


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