The House of Representatives passed a spate of policing-related bills on Thursday—a move by Democrats to shore up their pro-law-enforcement credentials as Republicans hammer them over past support for “defund the police” proposals in advance of November’s election. New Jersey representative Josh Gottheimer, an embattled centrist, told journalists that the package “made very clear that we get the backs of law enforcement . . . [that] we need to invest—not defund—to protect our communities and protect our officers.”
But the four bills that make up this package (H.R.s 5768, 6448, 8542, and 4118) are as much a sop to the pro-defund wing of the Democratic caucus as they are an investment in policing. While the package contains one solid proposal (funding for shooting investigations), it would also divert billions of dollars better spent on policing to the “alternatives” that defunders prefer.
Florida representative Val Demings’s VICTIM Act is easily the best of the bunch. The bill, which I have written about previously, would appropriate $1 billion in grants to help police departments boost clearance rates by hiring more detectives or improving technology. The funding is desperately needed: not only are crime-clearance rates startlingly low, but there’s good reason to believe that boosting clearances can help deter and otherwise prevent serious, violent crime.
The rest of the bills are less impressive. Perhaps second-best is Gottheimer’s Invest to Protect Act, which would hand out $240 million in grants to small police departments (those with fewer than 125 officers) to fund retention or training. There’s nothing wrong with that; it certainly qualifies as funding the police. But crime, particularly violent crime, is highly concentrated in America’s big cities, which essentially all have police departments too big to qualify for such assistance. Thus, it’s not the best use of $240 million.
Funding in the other two bills is even less well targeted. Nevada representative Steven Horsford’s Break the Cycle of Violence Act would spend $5 billion on “community violence intervention initiatives,” and California representative Katie Porter’s Mental Health Justice Act would give cities $1.25 billion to “train and dispatch mental health professionals to respond, instead of law enforcement officers, to emergencies that involve people with behavioral health needs.” Both of these approaches are exactly what defund-the-police advocates claim to want: more funding for crime-reducing alternatives to policing.
Are Horsford and Porter’s bills good investments? The answer, as ever, is compared to what? Community-violence intervention efforts are hard to get right. Many studies find that they have no effect. Mental-health responder programs, meantime, almost exclusively involve deploying civilians to handle a small percentage of non-criminal calls; they relieve some of the burden for cops but do little else.
Investing in such programs makes sense at the margins. Violence-interruption programs, in particular, have shown enough promise that spending more on pilots to figure out how to do them right would be worthwhile. But it’s hard to say that either of the interventions targeted by these bills would be more effective than additional funding for hiring and training more police officers—a policy choice that overwhelming evidence shows to be effective at reducing crime. This is particularly true given that, according to the best measures, violent crime remains above pre-pandemic levels.
Democrats may present this package as proof that they “back the blue,” but even a cursory look at the specifics shows otherwise. There’s some good here—especially in the VICTIM Act—but most of the funding in this package comes at the expense of funding for cops.
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