Skip to main content

A protester holds a sign calling for the defunding of police forces during a demonstration in New York on June 6, 2020.Ragan Clark/The Associated Press

Rarely does a protest slogan become a policy idea that appeals to the interests and values of radicals, liberals and conservatives alike. “Defund the police” is just such a slogan.

Black activists in the United States and Canada have been saying it for years, as a remedy to racial discrimination in policing; this week it became the official policy of the city of Minneapolis, which plans to replace its police force with something else. And it is now a target of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has portrayed it as a racial minority’s attack on law and order itself.

On the contrary. The idea behind that slogan – replacing professional police at the beat-cop level with less expensive, more local and impartial security institutions and technologies – has been known by scholars and policy experts for years to be an effective way to increase law and order while reducing social tensions.

Conservative-minded people ought to embrace the idea. Where else does a policy that slashes public-sector spending, crushes unions and increases economic efficiency also win applause from the other side?

In Canadian cities, multiple studies have shown that police disproportionately target people of Caribbean, African and African-American descent for stops and arrests, to an extent that cannot be explained by crime rates or incomes. That those communities differ economically, culturally and historically, and that other groups do not experience such treatment, makes racial bias the only explanation. And as Americans have learned, this doesn’t end when police come from targeted communities.

Another word for this phenomenon is inefficiency. Beat police and traffic cops waste a lot of their time and resources on people who don’t pose a threat, because they’re often guided by appearances rather than rational decisions. This makes people in targeted communities feel less secure, which leads to increased tensions and, in response, the assignment of more police – a spiral of public-sector waste and inefficiency.

This is exacerbated by police unions – which bear no resemblance to, and are opposed by, actual labour unions. They exist to resist reforms and block prosecutions of violent or crooked cops, and to insist, in what amounts to a racket, that uniformed police be used for all manner of rudimentary security duties.

Police forces, in other words, are an expensive and wasteful way to make people feel secure. Crime rates in cities have been plummeting for decades, and in most big cities are at historic lows. Yet the number of cops, and the cost of policing, has not fallen, nor has anger at police discrimination.

It is worth a serious look at Princeton University sociologist Patrick Sharkey’s 2018 study Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence, which anticipated much of this year’s rage and rhetoric. His analysis found that the drop in crime after the 1970s was in good part due to investments in neighbourhood security; less petty street crime caused a wider fall in serious crime. But governments mistakenly thought security meant uniformed policing; Dr. Sharkey’s data showed that similar reductions in crime and insecurity, without racial tension and violence, came about in neighbourhoods that used “rent-a-cop” security guards or, his preference, volunteer and often unarmed community patrols.

It doesn’t even need to be humans – he found that almost as much crime reduction results from highly visible security cameras. Generations of urban research have shown that neighbourhoods are more secure and prosperous when they can create “defensible space” or “eyes on the street” by having more populated sidewalks, more street-facing windows or just higher population density. You feel safe when you feel seen.

A smart policy would use a small professional force for things that police do well – investigating known crimes, identifying financial crimes, responding to serious incidents. Preventative security can easily be left to a combination of lower-cost community patrols and more technology. Traffic policing, an area heavily prone to racial bias and unnecessarily expensive, could similarly benefit from replacing labour with capital: A speed-radar unit on every street, and a red-light camera at every intersection, would make tickets automatic and bias-free and save hundreds of pedestrian lives, at far lower cost.

During the Obama years, some U.S. cities, such as Camden, N.J., abolished their corrupt police forces and got rid of their unions, replacing them with smaller, lower-paid community patrols. Since then, they’ve seen crime levels, police budgets and racial tensions all fall to new lows. It’s no coincidence that those cities haven’t seen any rioting or violence this month – in fact, their police officers and chiefs joined the protests, where they were welcomed. They had become part of the solution.

Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail’s international affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.