As violence surges, does Minneapolis need more police rather than fewer?

This heartbreaking video was shared on Facebook recently. It gives a raw, unfiltered glimpse of the reality of life in Minneapolis as crime surges.

At one point, Ms. Lewis says:

This is why we say ‘defund the police’, we don’t need the police if they’re not going to do nothing about it. 

A recent report from the Star Tribune explains why this might be happening:

Under a tent on a blazing hot morning, Minneapolis officer Mike Nimlos described a police force that is overwhelmed.

“We need to get out there and do more proactive work, but we don’t have the bodies,” Nimlos told several dozen North Siders gathered in a backyard. “We barely have enough time to answer calls — we’re going from one call to the next call to the next call. Officers are getting burned out. They’re getting tired.”

Shot Spotter activations and 911 calls about gunshots in the city have more than doubled from a year ago. Nearly half of 3,218 such shots-fired calls this year came after Floyd was killed on May 25.

As I wrote last year, with crime surging in the city a poll showed that 63% of Minneapolis residents supported expanding the city’s police force to 850 patrol officers by 2025. Fox 9 reported at the time:

Along racial lines, 61 percent of white residents supported the expansion and 65 percent of people of color did the same.

In addition to the department expansion results, the survey showed 42 percent of residents believe crime in Minneapolis is a serious problem, with 41 percent believing there is more crime in the city now than a few years ago.

Concerns over crime in Minneapolis are especially high among people of color, with 54 percent saying it is a major problem. 49 percent of people of color say there is more crime now than in recent years.

Most Minneapolitans added that they feel safer in the presence of police officers (65 percent), which includes 59 percent of people of color and 69 percent of white residents. [Emphasis added]

There is sense to this. The research is pretty clear that more cops means less crime. As wrote for Vox:

In a 2005 paper, Jonathan Glick and Alex Tabarrok found a clever instrument to measure the effects of officer increases through the terrorism “alert levels” that were a feature of the early to mid-aughts. During high-alert periods, the Washington, DC, police force would mobilize extra officers, especially in and around the capital’s core, centered on the National Mall. Using daily crime data, they found that the level of crime decreased significantly on high-alert days, and the decrease was especially concentrated on the National Mall.

Critically, the finding was not that adding police officers leads to more arrests and then locking up crooks leads to lower crime in the long run. It’s simply that with more officers around, fewer people commit crimes in the first place. That seems to be the criminal justice ideal, in which fewer people are getting locked up because fewer people are being victimized by criminals.

This sounds a little paradoxical, but the reality is the size of the prison population is driven largely by the harshness of the sentencing, not the number of police stops. The criminologist Lawrence Sherman has observed that the United States is very unusual in spending much more money on the prison system than on our police departments. This suggests the possibility of switching to a formula Tabarrok has summarized as “more police, fewer prisons, less crime”: uniformed officers patrolling the streets stopping crime before it starts rather than working in prisons surveilling convicts.

About a year ago, Stephen Mello of Princeton University assessed the Obama-era increase in federal police funding. Thanks to the stimulus bill, funding for Clinton’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) hiring grant program surged from about $20 million a year in the late-Bush era to $1 billion in 2009. The program design allowed Mello to assess some quasi-random variation in which cities got grants. The data shows that compared to cities that missed out, those that made the cut ended up with police staffing levels that were 3.2 percent higher and crime levels that were 3.5 percent lower.

This is an important finding because not only does it show that more police officers leads to less crime, but that actual American cities are not currently policed at a level where there are diminishing returns. Instead, reductions in crime seem to be about proportional to increases in the size of police forces.

A larger historical survey by Aaron Chalfin and Justin McCrary looked at a large set of police and crime data for midsize to large cities from 1960 to 2010 and concluded that every $1 spent on extra policing generates about $1.63 in social benefits, primarily through fewer murders.

It is still common to hear calls for ‘law and order’ dismissed as some sort of ‘dog whistle’ for white racists. This polling evidence shows, however, that concern for law and order isn’t limited to such people. Not surprisingly, pretty much all of us, African-Americans included, want our families to live in safe neighborhoods. Statistics show, too, that African-Americans are disproportionately the victims of crime so they understand better than anyone the dangers of crackpot policies like abolishing the police.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.