The progressive City Council in Burlington, Vt., thought it was striking a blow for social justice when shortly after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, it cut the police force’s authorized strength from 104 officers to 74. Morale plunged, many cops quit and a downsizing happened precipitously. Now, the city of 44,000 has 61 officers, 53 of whom are “actively deployed.” Bicycle theft and open-air drug sales have proliferated. Police in October said there had been four murders since July, after none in the preceding two years. Citizens have organized their own “bike recovery” group, which rides in search of thieves “like a posse from an old western,” according to the New York Times. ,Burlington’s experience illustrates why mainstream Democrats were wise to distance themselves from proposals to “defund the police” though the party still remains vulnerable politically on crime, even after a strong performance in the midterm elections, writes Washington Post columnist Charles Lane.
“The Injustice of Under-Policing in America,” published this year by Christopher Lewis of Harvard Law School and Adaner Usmani, of Harvard’s sociology department, argues that progress could require a substantial increase in police on the streets. Criminal justice reformers often decry the much higher incarceration rate in this country relative to peer nations in Europe as evidence of an system that manages to be both coercive and, given comparatively high U.S. rates of violent crime, ineffectual. Lewis and Usmani say that many other industrialized democracies field more police per capita than the U.S. does. At 212 officers per 100,000 total residents, this country ranks in the 41st percentile, behind Germany, Spain and Belgium, among others.
Relative to its level of serious crime, the U.S. has one-ninth as many police officers, per homicide, than the median developed country. The result is that U.S. police are 44 percent less likely than counterparts abroad to clear cases of serious crime. Lewis and Usmani emphasize that American police devote as much effort — per officer — to such cases; the problem is insufficient personnel. The upshot, Lewis and Usmani write, is that the U.S. has three people incarcerated for every police officer, whereas the rest of the developed world has 3.5 officers per prisoner.