Members Only | August 12, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Biden is wrong. More cops does not mean less crime

The president should propose spending on human services to make people safer and happier – and more likely to vote for Democrats.


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Politicians love them some law-and-order policies. They seem to believe tough-on-crime rhetoric magically attracts that elusive center-independent voter. And sure enough, as the midterms approach, Joe Biden is promising to dump tons of cash on cops.

But the more-cops-yields-more-votes default is flawed. 

The proposed pro-cop bill doesn’t really reduce crime or increase safety. There are other ways to spend that can help people more. 

Safer and happier people are more likely to keep the incumbent.

Spending on cops
Biden’s Safer America Plan proposes $35 billion in spending on law enforcement. That includes $13 billion over the next five years to hire 100,000 new cops. It also increases penalties for fentanyl use.

Instead of helplessly trying to prove that Democrats can be more Republican than Republicans to Republican voters who don’t care, it’s past time to focus on winning people over by actually helping them.

These proposals double-down on long-failed policies.

Bill Clinton promised to put 100,000 cops on the street in 1994. 

It was a debacle.  

Clinton never actually managed to get 100,000 cops in place. Instead, federal money ended up increasing staffing levels by between 69,000 to 84,600 officers, falling short of the goal by 15 to 31 percent.

Even this overstates the actual number of police hired. 

Some of the increase would have happened anyway. New officers were simply paid for with federal dollars, instead of state ones. 

In addition, there was little effort to put cops in areas of high crime. The biggest urban centers actually got only two-thirds as much money per crime as rural areas and suburbs with low crime rates. 

Anyway, more cops doesn’t mean less crime. 

As the Post’s Philip Bump explained, there’s virtually no correlation between spending on police and crime rates since the 1960s.

Bump notes that in 2006, the US spent $386 per person on police, and violent crime rates were 474 per 100,000 people. In 2010 spending bumped up to $412 per person and crime rates dropped to 405 violent crimes per 100,000. In 2012, spending fell back to $389 per person and crime rates … fell again to 399 per 100,000.

Biden has also proposed tougher penalties for fentanyl trafficking, harking back to the war on drugs. Criminalizing drugs was a failure. It drove mass incarceration. It didn’t reduce overdoses or addiction. 

More than a hundred health and racial justice organizations signed a letter in October 2021 begging the president to respond to fentanyl overdoses as a public health problem with public health solutions rather than with more cops. He appears to have ignored their pleas.

Spending on human services
Spending in other areas, however, can reduce crime. 

A 2017 study found that each $10,000 increase in spending per person in poverty was correlated with .87 fewer homicides per 100,000. Areas that spent more on the poor had fewer murders.

Another study in 2018 found that an increase in drug treatment facilities reduced violent crime and financially-motivated crime. 

Researchers estimated that an additional treatment facility reduced social cost of crime by about $4.2 million a year. Since the facilities cost about $1.1 million, opening one saves about $3 million a year.

There are of course numerous other problems that you could address rather than spending money on useless cops. 

We are still in the middle of a serious, massive pandemic. 

We could invest in vaccines, tests and treatment if we want to make people safer and healthier. We could re-pass the expanded child tax credit, which is proven to lift millions of children out of poverty

These are policies that we know would help people directly. 

When people’s lives improve, there’s evidence that they tend to vote for incumbents — as you’d expect. So why not do the things you know will help people, rather than things you know won’t matter?

Politics of spending
The problem is that politicians tend to hyperfocus on political messaging. Republicans have made law-and-order a central campaign issue, both this cycle and for the last 40 years. 

Democrats are terrified of being painted as soft on crime. They think they can inoculate themselves by spending money on cops.

But the people paying close attention to political messaging tend to be political junkies who are already strong partisans. 

And Republicans in particular, insulated in the right-wing media bubble, barely care about facts on the ground. 

They cheerfully vote against funding police while attacking Democrats for defunding the police. Democrats call them hypocrites. 

Republicans don’t care.

If you want to get people who are less partisan and less tuned in to politics to vote for you, you should help them. 

Political messaging is mostly useful for inspiring and riling up your own supporters, who are listening to partisan leaders closely.

In this case, a lot of the Democrat’s base is actively alienated by pro-police and law-and-order rhetoric – with good reason.

They fear putting more cops on the street will exacerbate the problems of racist police violence and mass incarceration.

Biden isn’t entirely ignoring this base. 

His Safer America Plan also includes $5 billion for community violence intervention programs and $15 billion for cities and states that use non-police responses to some emergencies. 

It also boosts spending on mental health and substance abuse treatment, social workers and affordable housing.

Finally getting it
It’s heartening to see the Democratic Party moving toward solutions for crime that actually have some record of being effective. 

But it’s disturbing that they continue to double down not just on failed policies, but on failed messaging. 

Instead of helplessly trying to prove that Democrats can be more Republican than Republicans to Republican voters who don’t care, it’s past time to focus on winning people over by actually helping them. 

And if you don’t win them over? 

Well, you’ve still helped lift them out of poverty or you’ve helped keep them disease-free or you’ve helped reduce crime. 

When you help people, at worst you’ve helped them. 

Isn’t helping people the reason politicians get into politics?

Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.

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