As the term ‘defund the police’ gains momentum throughout the country, detractors of the concept of reducing police budgets in favor of more social services raise concerns about the implication of smaller police forces for public safety. But the Philadelphia police’s current track record on gun violence -- the most profound public safety crisis in Philadelphia -- suggests that the resources we pour into safety are having little impact on outcomes -- leading to a bigger question about the priorities of the city’s police department.
Stuck in the middle of both of the city’s gun violence crisis and the policing crisis are Philadelphia’s black residents.
Black Philadelphians are more likely to be stopped by police when they are walking down the street or driving their car, but also more likely to be the victims of gun violence and live in neighborhoods with higher crime rates as a result of decades of segregation and disinvestment. If police were having an impact on public safety, black communities should have benefited. But that is just not the case -- and what’s left is over-policing.
The lost month
During April, the Philadelphia Police Department operated under special instructions for COVID-19 -- delaying arrests for non-violent offenses such as drug possession and sale. The order started mid-March and was lifted on May 1st. Between this policy and overall reduction in crime that followed the stay-at-home order, April 2020 was probably one of the least busy months for police in Philadelphia’s history.
The overall number of crime incidents in April was a quarter less than it was in February -- the last full month without COVID-19. In fact, April was the month with the fewest crime incidents in Philadelphia at least since 2006. The most dramatic decline was in arrests: the police made only 875 arrests. That’s less than half of the arrests in March and a third of any other month since 2014.
Fewer crimes, fewer stops, fewer arrests, no trials to testify in because courts were closed, no large public events for police to provide security: What did police do all of April? And how did they rack up more than $3.7 million in overtime, according to police figures?
We know what they didn’t do: prevented and solved shootings and homicides.
According to data that the Philadelphia Police Department provided the editorial board, in 2020 through May 27th, an arrest followed only 20% non-fatal shooting incidents and 35% of homicides. Only nine of the 29 homicides and 20 of the 115 non-fatal shootings in April were cleared. A Washington Post investigation into homicide clearance rates found that most arrests are made 10 days following the incidents, with likelihood of solving it going down with every passing day. Well into June, it is likely that many of the homicides and non-fatal shootings will go unsolved forever.
If a well-resourced, less burdened police department was able to prevent gun violence and solve shootings, Philadelphia could have proven that in April -- it didn’t.
The issue of clearance rates came up in the police department’s budget hearing last week. Commissioner Danielle Outlaw attributed the low clearance rate to the reluctance of community members to provide information to the police and testify. Police also said that the workload for homicides detective in Philadelphia is above the national average.
When the police department has the capacity to conduct tens of thousands of stops that don’t yield arrest every month -- including April -- but homicide detectives are overworked, something profound in our approach to public safety has gotten lost. It is not only that these upside down priorities don’t promote public safety, they potentially damage it. There is ample research that shows that police interactions that are perceived as unfair reduce police legitimacy. A survey of Philadelphia teens found that among the top reasons they wouldn’t call the police was a negative personal experience.
Fewer resources, but also reallocated
Black Philadelphians are the ones who are most impacted by gun violence, least likely to see justice -- and most at risk to end up entangled in the criminal justice system for minor infractions. To promote public safety, Philadelphia must change both sides of the equation. That means diverting resources away from the unjust practices that reduce police legitimacy and toward solving serious crimes -- and toward community based violence prevention programs.