It’s everything I rail against in this space: violent and capitalistic in the worst sense of the word. Openly militaristic and intolerant of real dissent. And yet I still can’t quit the National Football League, the brutal sport I’ve been watching since I was seven years old. This past weekend brought arguably the most exhilarating 12 hours of football I’ve ever seen. I didn’t stop to question why.
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It’s that ‘70s show for Democrats who are running scared on crime and pandering to police
That ‘70s Show has been off the air since 2006, but it’s always in reruns for the Democratic Party. For decades after urban crime spiked, Dems have offered voters a GOP-lite version of conservative law-and-order politics that resulted in modern America’s mass incarceration regime, along with police brutality and wrongful convictions.
That both political parties tripped over each other in racing to hire more and more cops, lengthen prison sentences, and wage an over-the-top “war on drugs” made it all the more stunning in the spring of 2020 when millions of Americans took to the streets after the police murder of George Floyd to demand radical change. For a remarkable — and remarkably brief — moment, most Democrats rushed to embrace a new world order in which cops wouldn’t just operate under stricter rules but policing itself would be downsized in favor of social services.
The poster child of this pivoting ideology was arguably the then-Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden. He was a key architect of the 1994 federal crime bill that put a U.S. stamp of approval on mass incarceration, but when taking office in 2021, President Biden promised “to root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system and to enact police reform in George Floyd’s name.”
But the echo of 2020′s bold promises had barely died down when the murder rate spiked across much of America, driven heavily, experts increasingly believe, by rage and ennui over the endless COVID-19 pandemic. Terrified by fear that the activists’ chants of “defund the police” would cost their party the 2020 and 2021 elections, top Democrats are now scurrying back to the old playbook by calling for more cops.
Pennsylvania’s Democratic candidate for governor, Attorney General Josh Shapiro is leading the way. The veteran Montgomery County politician needed no big push to stand with officers — the controversial Philadelphia Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police donated $25,000 to Shapiro’s 2020 AG campaign — and the lack of a primary challenger has allowed him to drift to the center-right, months before the general election.
“We need more police ... more police with time to form relationships in the community that they serve,” Shapiro said last month in West Philadelphia. Although Shapiro tempers his remarks with a call for community policing and calls for other services besides law enforcement, his emphasis on more cops — including a plan for hiring bonuses of $6,000 for new recruits — have grabbed headlines early in his campaign.
Biden echoed this last week at the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “We shouldn’t be cutting funding for police departments,” he said. “I proposed increasing funding.” Biden had also promised a national commission on police reform in his first 100 days, then scrapped that to focus on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — which then failed to pass.
Look, no one is disputing that the increase in murders — including a record in Philadelphia last year, with horrific headlines about little kids struck by stray bullets or the Asian woman pushed in front of a New York subway train — demands full and prompt attention from our political leaders. But is there any evidence that hiring more cops is the answer? Especially when many high-profile killings — involving domestic violence or road rage — happen in places and ways that defy traditional police methods.
The evidence that hiring cops alone reduces crime just isn’t there, even anecdotally. There were multiple NYPD officers on the platform when a man suddenly pushed Michelle Go onto the tracks, for example. The evidence also is not really there statistically either. One study by University of Pennsylvania criminologist Aaron Chiflin found that little more than half (54%) of cities that hire more police see murders fall, but Chiflin told the New York Times there are many reasons why crime goes up or down.
Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, the Brown University (and formerly Temple University) sociologist who wrote the award-winning Crook County about Chicago’s dysfunctional justice system, noted that police who boast about their role in bringing crime rates down rarely accept responsibility when they spike back upward. Van Cleve and other experts also note that political calculations about adding cops rarely factor in the negative impacts, such as increased brutality cases, or more traffic stops or stop-and-frisk encounters which could either go bad, or else result in more folks behind bars for non-violent crimes.
“For many people — if you’re Black in Philadelphia, for example — seeing foot patrol officers doesn’t make you feel safer,” Van Cleve said.
But for politicians like Shapiro or Biden, promising to hire more cops is the quickest shortcut for blunting Republican attacks that they’re “soft on crime.” In other words, it’s largely pandering, and it downplays the evidence that other forms of intervention in struggling neighborhoods — increasing mental health services or drug treatment, funding pre-kindergarten, or simply fixing streetlights — are more effective.
That disconnect is particularly egregious in Pennsylvania, because the issue here isn’t a lack of money. The Keystone State, thanks to Republicans’ determination not to spend federal COVID-19 dollars, ended the last fiscal year with an estimated $10 billion in spare cash, and the surplus continues to grow. These funds could make Pennsylvania a laboratory for making neighborhoods safer in the truest sense. If Josh Shapiro could expand his mind beyond the tired formulas of the 1970s and ‘80s, he could even run as the real public-safety candidate.
Yo, do this
Just the name — Smedley Darlington Butler — seems worthy of a book. But the story of this turn-of-the-20th-century Marine war hero — son of a Chester County congressman who served a stint as Philadelphia police commissioner and retired to Newtown Square — is even more remarkable than his moniker. In Gangsters of Capitalism, author Jonathan M. Katz traveled the globe to chronicle how Butler blazed a trail for the American Empire from Cuba to Beijing, then became a fierce critic of U.S. imperialism and the capitalists who funded it, even foiling a pro-business coup plot against FDR and his New Deal.
Do-gooders like media reformers are used to seeing their pie-in-the-sky ideas ignored. When Chris Cuomo’s 9 p.m. show on CNN imploded, critics like New York University’s Jay Rosen and Dan Froomkin of PressWatchers asked: How about a nightly show on the new and very real threats to democracy? Shockingly, CNN did exactly that, with its new Democracy in Peril hosted by Brianna Keilar. It’s a bit of an awkward time slot — weeknights at 9 p.m., competing with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who’s covering the same stories — but it’s also a highly positive sign of journalism adjusting to our new reality.
Ask me anything
Question: How close do you really think we are to World War III? — Via @RealMarkusOrth on Twitter
Answer: Hopefully not super close — and yet too close for comfort. Anyone who’s ever read Barbara Tuchman’s classic The Guns of August about the miscalculations of World War I should get slightly nauseous at the sight of today’s troop movements centering on Ukraine and Russia’s Vladimir Putin’s lust for power. Most likely, the U.S. and NATO will respond with sanctions and not guns, but I worry about the wider fraying of the world order, and how what happens in Ukraine influences Xi Jinping’s imperial designs. We saw in the 20th century how domestic authoritarianism was the precursor to world war. When will we learn?
Backstory on a stunning find around kids, cash, and poverty
President Biden has been under fire from all sides recently, on issues ranging from rising inflation to the persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet for some reason, no Fox News reporter ever shouts a question at POTUS 46 about why he’s letting child poverty in America shoot upward from the current 12.1% rate to more than 17% in just one month, according to a new projection from Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy. Maybe that’s because the reason is the sudden undoing of the program that Biden and his allies successfully pushed through in the first year of his presidency: an expansion of child tax credits in which parents received as much as $300 per child per month to make ends meet. The program — credited with quickly lowering U.S. child poverty as much as 30% to 50% — launched last July but stopped this month and legislation to continue the program was stalled by opposition from all 50 Senate Republicans and West Virginia conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.
This week, stunning new research from a team of scientists brought a new sense of urgency to the debate in Washington. The team, led by neuroscientist Dr. Kimberly Noble of Columbia University’s Teachers College, found that low-income families raising an infant who received a monthly cash stipend saw increased brain activity in their baby, associated with cognitive growth, after just one year. In reporting their findings in a National Academy of Sciences publication, the researchers mixed caveats — the gains were real but modest, and more research is needed to show that the brain activity translates to higher functioning — with real optimism.
“This is a big scientific finding,” University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Martha Farah told the New York Times. This makes the gridlock on Capitol Hill all the more frustrating. After all, the impact of lower-income kids falling behind in school — including any link to rising crime — provides a cynical brand of fuel for today’s conservative politics. Would senators in Washington rather take credit for ending child poverty and the life challenges that come with it, or stay in office by running against these neighborhoods on Election Day?
Inquirer reading list
For my Sunday column, I marked the one-year anniversary of the Biden presidency by taking note of growing fear that neither he nor Vice President Kamala Harris would be viable 2024 candidates. I tried to bring some outside-the-box thinking to the idea that the Democrats lack any real Plan C by asking: Why isn’t the newly minted political star Rep. Jamie Raskin — author of the nation’s best-selling book, front man for the January 6 probe, and survivor of a family tragedy that millions of voters can relate to — part of the conversation?
Over the weekend, I rounded up the dizzying new developments in those January 6 probes and other investigations that have tightened the vise around Donald Trump, his inner circle, and even his family. But the new findings also raise a challenge: What if an increasingly frazzled and overwhelmed America looks at the evidence of Trump’s criminality and does nothing? What will that tell us about the health of U.S. democracy?
Having recently finished a writing a book centered on what’s wrong with college in America (coming in August), I’ve been fascinated by the growing debate over diversity at Temple, which, as The Inquirer reported, saw its rate of Black undergrads cut in half during an era of upscale dorm building and marketing. Into the fray steps current Temple prof David W. Brown with a sharp opinion piece that — building off a youthful incident when a security guard chased him off the North Philadelphia campus — notes that true diversity is more about attitude than numbers. We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if Philadelphia didn’t have a great newspaper. Keep it going. Subscribe to The Inquirer.