Biden's plan to spend billions on community policing is bad policy

Biden's plan to spend billions on community policing is bad policy
© iStock

This past Monday, President BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race On The Money: Democrats get to the hard part Health Care — GOP attorneys general warn of legal battle over Biden's vaccine mandate MORE encouraged a group of city leaders and police chiefs to tap into $350 billion of COVID-relief funds to address rising violence. In addition to “community-based prevention and intervention programs,” the president urged funds be used to hire more police and “encourage more community policing” that aims to enhance public safety through cooperative partnerships

On its face, parallel investment in community programs and “community policing” appears to have little downside. History and decades of research show, however, that community policing is, at best, a bad bet to reduce violence. At worst, it’s a thinly-veiled political play for the president to have his cake and eat it, too, appeasing progressives with funds for community-based programs while using the gentler label of “community” policing to justify a deluge of federal dollars for U.S. police. 

This is not the first time Biden has used such sleight of hand. As a senator, Biden was a prominent supporter of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. This legislation, in addition to providing billions to expand state prisons, allocated nearly $11 billion to put “100,000 officers on the street in community policing programs” and reduce violent crime. The bill also created the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, which has distributed more than $14 billion to community policing efforts since 1994. 

Decades and billions of dollars later, research shows that community policing is not the answer violence. Though it can improve attitudes toward police, it has only small and unreliable effects on violence. Its lack of effectiveness is at least partially explained by the utter lack of consistency in how departments implement community policing. Walking patrols, community meetings, neighborhood watch, and ice cream socials have all been labeled community policing. Many departments that claim to practice community policing relegate its implementation to individual officers or specialized units. And departments that report community policing is practiced department-wide actually end up “squeezing in” community policing between calls for service. Even worse, other departments do little more than relabel age-old enforcement as community policing, perpetuating the aggressive enforcement that harms disadvantaged communities and creates the deep distrust which community policing was supposed to address in the first place. 

Pouring billions into police hiring with vague appeals to “community policing” is a recipe for either ineffective or inequitable policing. This does not mean, however, that police have no ability to address violence. As outlined by Thomas Abt, a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice, “focused deterrence” interventions that use a combination of police, social service providers and community members have helped reduce gun violence in cities across the United States. By the same token, “hot spots” policing that focuses on the extremely small number of “micro places” and people actively involved in violence — a far cry from indiscriminate, “stop and frisk” policing — can reduce violence.  

And then there are strategies that do not depend on police at all. For every 10 non-profits focused on reducing violence and building stronger communities that a city adds, violent crime drops by 6 percent; murder, specifically, drops by 9 percent. After-school initiatives that use cognitive behavioral therapy can reduce involvement in violent crime by between 45 and 50 percent, and summer job programs reduced youth violence by 43 percent. Just changing the physical environment can reduce violence, too. Better lighting and rehabilitating blighted areas by renovating the facades of abandoned buildings and clearing empty lots can make communities safer, too. 

The Biden administration’s announcement of new funding to reduce violence does, of course, provide some reason for optimism. Potentially billions of dollars going to community-based prevention is a welcome development, especially as political pressure to stem the bloodshed pushes major cities to roll back last year’s efforts to transfer funding from police to communities and social services. Teachers, clergy, mental health care professionals and violence interrupters that have been on the frontlines of our gun violence epidemic for decades need and deserve more resources. But tethering this investment to billions of more dollars for community policing that has never been consistently implemented and which has little effect on violence is bad policy. In an effort to appease everyone, Biden’s funding proposal risks repeating very costly mistakes we’ve already made. 

Michael Sierra-Arévalo is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and a commissioner on City of Austin’s Public Safety Commission. His writing and research have appeared in The Washington Post, NPR, Vox, and GQ, among others. Follow him on Twitter @michaelsierraa.