Calls to defund the police because of brutality and racism don’t match the experiences of most Americans when they call law enforcement for help, according to the most recent comprehensive national data collected by the Justice Department.
The overwhelming share of U.S. residents who in the past several years initiated contact with the police to request assistance said they were satisfied with the interaction, and a clear majority said the police improved the situation.
Among the millions of people who call police for help, whether for a mental health crisis, domestic violence incident or other emergency, an estimated 83% said they were satisfied with the police response and 59% said the police improved the situation, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Police-Public Contact Survey.
“Three hundred and seventy five million interactions with the public every year [and] overwhelmingly positive responses,” fumed Mike O’Meara, the president of New York state’s umbrella group for Police Benevolent Associations.
“We don’t condone Minneapolis. We roundly reject what he did as disgusting. It’s not what we do. It’s not what police officers do,” he said.
Law enforcement officials across the country are now under the gun from activists and politicians demanding a complete overhaul or the defunding of police departments.
Under some proposals, police response to potential life-and-death situations would get junked in favor of a social-worker-style response force.
In Minneapolis, where the death of George Floyd in police custody sparked anti-police protests around the world, the City Council is poised to approve a dismantling of the city’s police force.
City Council President Lisa Bender, a Democrat, said people who fear lawlessness without a strong police presence are speaking “from a place of privilege.”
“Because for those of us for whom the system is working, I think we need to step back and imagine what it would feel like to already live in that reality where calling the police may mean more harm is done,” she said on CNN.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, announced he would push to shift millions of dollars from the police department to youth and social services.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a Democrat, is looking to cut up to $150 million from the city’s police budget to help fund initiatives in communities of color and other people he described as having been “left behind.”
The D.C. Council on Tuesday hurriedly approved a major overhaul of policing laws, including banning pepper spray and rubber bullets for crowd control and making it a felony for police to use a chokehold.
Much of the public discourse about racism and policing, however, appears to be disconnected from criminal justice data, said Paul Cassell, a victims rights expert who is a former assistant U.S. attorney.
“I think that makes crime victims’ advocates fearful that programs will be put in place that sound good in theory but don’t work in practice,” Mr. Cassell said. “And unless we’re measuring exactly what’s happening, it’s going to be hard to tell whether these reforms are useful or counterproductive.”
Every three years, the Justice Department releases a report that tracks contacts between the public and police, including in traffic stops, emergency calls and reports of suspected crimes.
The most recent report, released in fall 2018, found that U.S. residents 16 and older reported nearly 76 million contacts with police. The figures were projected based on the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Police-Public Contact Survey in 2015.
The most common reasons for police contact were reporting a crime, disturbance or suspicious activity (23.1 million), being pulled over as the driver in a traffic stop (22.7 million) and reporting a non-crime emergency (more than 12 million).
Among those who initiated contact, 83% said they were satisfied with the response and about 59% said the police improved the situation.
Hispanic residents who initiated contact with the police were only slightly less likely (56%) to say that police improved the situation than white respondents (60%) or black respondents (59%).
Racial disparities, however, started to come into greater focus for police-initiated contacts.
When it came to people who were stopped by law enforcement in a street stop, 60% of residents said the stop was legitimate and 81% said they thought the police behaved properly.
But among black respondents, 50% said they thought the stop was legitimate and 59% said they thought the police behaved properly.
Among the estimated 53.5 million residents who reported contact with police during the previous 12 months, only about 2% said they experienced threats or use of force.
But the percentage of black and Hispanic respondents who reported threats or use of force during their most recent police interaction was more than twice as high as the percentage of white respondents who reported the same.
Blacks were also more likely to have interaction with law enforcement that was initiated by police, and white respondents were slightly more likely to initiate interaction with law enforcement.
Still, substituting unarmed citizen employees for police in certain situations could have unintended consequences, Mr. Cassell said.
“Obviously, if an unarmed responder ends up in a dangerous situation, that increases risks — not just to the responder but also to the surrounding community,” he said. “So I think the devil is going to be in the details on these kinds of reforms.”
Jack Rinchich, president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, said there is always room for improvement but knee-jerk responses and radical overhauls are unlikely to be helpful.
Mr. Rinchich, a 40-year veteran of law enforcement in West Virginia, said social workers can provide valuable services but cannot replace police on the front lines of crime-fighting.
“All of a sudden, you have an active shooter response situation in a high school and the shooter chained the doors. You have mass casualties and no one to breach the facility and neutralize the shooter,” he said. “I can’t imagine a social worker going into a situation like that and trying to convince a shooter to lay down their gun with a Ph.D. or a diploma.”
Former Obama administration official Van Jones said “defund the police” will mean different things to different people.
“Law enforcement should embrace an element of this,” Mr. Jones said on CNN. “Now police officers have to be cops, they have to be counselors, they have to be marriage counselors, coaches. It’s too much on them, and their budgets have ballooned.”
Still, tensions between police and minority communities might have already reached the point where many people of color simply opt not to call police during a crisis.
The Justice Department survey estimated that 21% of U.S. residents 16 and older had experienced some kind of contact with police during the previous 12 months, which was down from 26% in 2011.
The time frame for the most recently available survey would have covered the August 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and some of the ensuing protests that affected part of President Obama’s second term in office.
As was the case with the left’s recent push to “abolish” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the definition of what constitutes “defunding” the police can also be in the eye of the beholder.
Some Democrats are trying to capitalize on the newfound push by embracing reforms but rejecting the nebulous idea of “defunding” the police.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden, among others, have said they oppose defunding the police.
“When they’re saying ‘defund the police,’ what are they saying? They’re saying we want fundamental basic change when it comes to policing, and they’re right,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat.
Republicans say Democrats can’t have it both ways as major localities outside of Minneapolis, such as New York City and Los Angeles, are also embracing calls to cut back on police funding.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody pushed back against the idea of dismantling police administration at a White House roundtable this week.
“They rush in to save us when other people rush out. They deliver babies. They charge in when someone is hyped up on fentanyl and just beat his wife and children and rescue them,” Ms. Moody said. “We have to ensure they’re safe, and at the same time, we must remain committed to improving our system.”