John Updike famously defined the “true New Yorker” as someone harboring a “secret belief that people living anywhere else had to be, in some sense, kidding.” This hometown chauvinism once rang true in the hearts of Americans who resided in other great cities, from Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. to Seattle and Los Angeles.
But America’s great metropolises risk sliding into violence, disorder, and decline. The chief cause is the progressive belief that social-justice priorities can and should be addressed through the manipulation of law enforcement policies. Social-justice concerns are animated by an impulse to address undesirable outcomes in economics, politics, education, race, sex, and even health care. These matters are more properly understood as complex social processes. The criminal law’s purpose, however, is more straightforward: to prevent crime, preserve public order, and protect law-abiding citizens.
Nevertheless, this progressive thinking has gripped America’s urban centers and informed their law enforcement procedures, and the consequences have been predictably disastrous—enabling more crime, demoralizing the police, and weakening the institutions created to preserve the rule of law.
Progressive hostility to law enforcement is not new. After 20-some years of crime reduction attributable to policies that they deplore, left-wing anti-police activists were anxious to reenter the criminal-justice fight. They seized on two highly politicized police use-of-force incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, in 2014 and 2015, respectively, to spark public hostility toward policing policies and methods. These incidents, and especially the media coverage of them, helped birth the modern anti-police movement. A police-as-enemy narrative took hold, poisoning police-community relations and reviving the discourse of racial essentialism and permanent conflict.
The resulting public and political hostility toward law enforcement left thousands of police officers across the country unwilling or unable to engage in the kind of proactive efforts proven to reduce crime and disorder. Instead, they retrenched, insulating themselves from becoming leading subjects in the next out-of-context viral video. This “Ferguson Effect,” as the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald dubbed it, resulted in fewer arrests and higher crime.
In 2015, Baltimore suffered profoundly from the Ferguson Effect, with arrests dropping by 28 percent while murders rose by 55 percent from the previous year. These numbers were also fueled by the reign of progressive state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby, who exploited anti-police momentum for political gain, further alienating the Baltimore Police Department. (The Department of Justice has since indicted Mosby for perjury and fraud unrelated to these incidents.) Likewise, in Chicago, where an American Civil Liberties Union-instigated lawsuit neutered the Chicago Police Department by curtailing proactive policing, the city saw a dramatic rise in violent crime —police-citizen stops dropped by 82 percent, while murders rose by 58 percent.
Anti-police sentiment mutated into the progressive movement to “defund the police” after George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, ushering in the Black Lives Matter riots in the summer of 2020, during which malcontents sought to burn down American cities in the name of racial justice. Meantime, a cadre of progressive activists had ascended to positions of authority within law enforcement.
Championing social-justice commitments within the criminal justice system, “progressive prosecutors,” taking office in major cities, began pursuing decriminalization and decarceration policies that swiftly returned many criminals back to the very streets where they had committed their crimes.
In New York City, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg implemented radically weak, soft-on-crime policies related to charging decisions and sentencing requests. Since he took office on January 1, 2022, violent crime—murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, and home invasion—in southern Manhattan alone was up 42.9 percent in the first ten months of 2022. This is worse than New York City’s overall violent crime rate, which rose over 30 percent from 2021. The trend is driven, in large part, by repeat offenders with open cases perpetrating multiple crimes while out on the streets. Indeed, the NYPD reports that over 500 repeat offenders were arrested at least three or more times for offenses ranging from robbery to burglary in the early months of this year.
Bragg’s reckless approach is complemented by New York’s 2020 bail-reform regime, which disallows pretrial detention for defendants charged with whole classes of felony and misdemeanor offenses. With Bragg, bail reform, and a criminal-justice infrastructure bound by a perp-first, victim-last mentality, New York City has fumbled its former glory as the safest big city in America.
In San Francisco, progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin, sworn into office in 2020, oversaw a 40 percent jump in home burglaries during his first year in office. This was no surprise, given that a San Francisco Chronicle study found that during Boudin’s first two years in office, 40 percent of charges booked as felonies were ultimately downgraded to lesser charges, a number dramatically higher than that of his predecessor. Boudin’s failed policies would drive even the city’s unabashedly liberal residents to remove him from office by recall vote earlier this year.
From the sobering experience of recent years come two lessons. First, ideological progressives have no business leading law enforcement agencies. Law enforcement is simply not their calling. Their worldview compels them to shield criminals from accountability, which means, in practice, incarceration. When criminals are at liberty, they do what criminals do: commit crimes. This uncomplicated equation explains why crime rises where progressives govern.
Second, public hostility toward police causes police to stand down. Police officers are human beings, and human beings act on incentives. When use-of-force incidents are politicized, police officers get indicted, tried, and convicted in the court of liberal opinion, with consequences ranging from legal prosecution to termination of employment. As long as an anti-law enforcement mentality prevails in American cities, cops will err on the side of caution, confronting and arresting fewer criminals.
As the old saying goes, “city air is free air.” But when streets and public spaces are not safe, cities are not free. Progressive criminal-justice policies—and the magical thinking on which they are based—offer nothing but chaos.
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