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Clockwise from top left: Stephanie Keith/Getty; Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty; KEREM YÜCEL/AFP/Getty; Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty
Scenes of crimes that took place between October 2019 and May 2021 in Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York

Can Criminal Justice Reform Survive a Wave of Violent Crime?

An uptick in homicides across the country is getting blamed on reforms. That argument gets the data all wrong.

Scenes of crimes that took place between October 2019 and May 2021 in Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York

Last year was a disturbingly violent one for New York City, which suffered nearly 150 more homicides and around 750 more shootings than in 2019. The killings have been heartbreaking: a man on a handball court struck by a stray bullet, a one-year-old shot at a cookout. Meanwhile, the New York Police Department was quick to blame the violence on reform efforts that it has opposed for years. Patrick Lynch, the vitriolic head of the Police Benevolent Association, the union for rank-and-file police officers, called reformers “pro-criminal advocates” who have “hijacked our city and state.” Dermot Shea, the NYPD commissioner, complained that civilian leaders were “literally cowards who won’t stand up for what is right.” Later, he insisted that the state’s recent bail reforms were driving up shootings and homicides—despite clear evidence to the contrary.

The uptick in murders is not unique to New York, nor is the attempt to exploit it to undermine reforms. Even as the pandemic lockdown helped push down many crimes, last year saw an unprecedented spike in homicides nationwide, likely more than twice the largest previous one-year rise. And given the retaliatory nature of lethal violence and the ongoing disruption from the pandemic, we should expect homicides to remain high in 2021 as well. One study in Chicago, for example, found evidence that cycles of retaliation and counterretaliation meant that a single shooting was often the root cause of three, or sometimes 60, or once almost 500 subsequent shootings over the next few years.

How to stop this wave of violence is thus one of the most important policy questions for 2021, but asking it has rarely felt more fraught. The surge in homicide comes at a moment when conventional responses to crime face more intense criticism than any time since the civil rights movements of the 1960s. Reformers and activists across the country have spent the past decade campaigning to reduce our reliance on prisons, jail, probation, and even the police. The changes we’ve seen may be less dramatic than what many advocates have hoped for, and certainly less dramatic than how many of their detractors describe them, but they both reflect and have nurtured a growing shift in popular views on crime control. Just observe how quickly calls to “defund” the police entered mainstream debates in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Considering this trend, it’s unsurprising that those who favor the status quo are trying to use the rise in homicides as grist for rolling back policies they dislike. Some residents in San Francisco, for example, are urging the recall of the city’s progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin, even though the city’s homicide rate barely budged and remains lower than that of almost any year but 2019. And the police union in Philadelphia had invoked the rise in homicides to try to unseat that city’s progressive prosecutor, Larry Krasner—although that effort fell flat, as Krasner easily won the Democratic primary in May (a victory that all but ensures his reelection in solidly Democratic Philadelphia).

To be clear, the defenders of the status quo are mistaken. Not only have reforms been less extreme than they often claim, but the rise in homicides has occurred more or less equally in places that adopted reforms and those that rejected them. And given how few places have significantly altered their approach to crime, the homicide spike by and large took place on the status quo’s watch. Those who want policy to remain more punitive are thus arguing for more of what has mostly failed us this past year, and they are trying to blame reforms that appear to be uncorrelated with the surge.

What’s more, to argue in favor of the status quo is to ignore that the prescribed cure—more of what we have been doing for decades now—is almost certainly not the best cure, and is quite likely not even a good cure. Our criminal legal system produces tremendous harm and immiseration, even death, not just for defendants but for their families and communities. In a damning indictment of our fundamental indifference to the lives of the millions who come in contact with this system, we have no idea what the criminal legal system’s actual humanitarian costs are, but they are surely staggering. Reinforcing the status quo will provide less safety than its proponents hope, while perpetuating if not magnifying the harms the throngs of protesters are protesting against.

Nonetheless, the spike in homicides will surely alter the politics of reform, now and in the years ahead. In an increasingly hostile political environment, how can reformers preserve and even still build on the gains that have been made? And how should they strategically retreat at the times it becomes politically inevitable?

To understand how to respond to 2020’s rise in murders, it is first essential to understand what exactly happened. For many reasons, most tied to the way policing is fractured across over 15,000 or so independent police departments, it will be months before we have clear national data on crime in 2020. Yet the numbers we do have are striking. Data from 69 major police departments, for example, show an increase of nearly 2,000 homicides, from just over 6,500 in 2019 to more than 8,700 in 2020; experts are predicting that homicides nationwide will rise by something like 4,000 to 5,000. For comparison, the previous biggest one-year jump in United States history was in 1990, when homicides rose by slightly under 2,000.

The comparisons with the past are striking, but they are also quite ambiguous, and the way they are framed inescapably shapes the political conclusions people will draw. Crime, especially violent crime, rose from the mid-1960s until the early 1990s, when it began a steady and still poorly understood decline. In absolute terms, the estimated 21,000 homicides in 2020 will be close to 1991’s all-time high of 25,000. Framed like this, the current spike resembles the peak of a crime boom. But the U.S. population has grown by around 75 million people since 1991. So when you look at number of homicides per capita—a more accurate measure, it should perhaps go without saying—the appropriate historical parallel reveals itself to be 1998, or the soft landing of a major crime decline. (In 1998, there were 6.3 murders per 100,000 people; 2020’s rate will likely be around 6.5 murders per 100,000. The rate likely peaked in 1980 at 10.2 and 1991 at 9.8.)

Perhaps the most important feature of last year’s rise in homicides is just how uniform it appears to be. In 2020, homicides rose in 60 of the 69 major police departments noted above, and in almost all cases at a rate more or less proportional to homicides in 2019. Any one city’s share of homicides was roughly the same as its share in 2019, just appreciably higher. Unlike many previous periods, the spike was not the product of a few cities experiencing an especially bad year (in 2016, around 20 percent of the national increase in homicides was just due to Chicago), but of almost every city suffering in something close to unison.

One important upshot of this uniformity is that there is no evidence that cities with more progressive prosecutors experienced relatively worse outcomes than those with more conventional district attorneys. In fact, two of the eight departments that reported declines in homicides—Baltimore City, Maryland, and St. Louis County, Missouri—are home to two of the country’s most high-profile “progressive prosecutors,” Marilyn Mosby and Wesley Bell. Opponents of progressive prosecution are already invoking the homicide spike to push back against the movement, but the data simply do not back them up.

This should not surprise us. To start, even progressive prosecutors have maintained tough attitudes toward serious violence, especially homicide. In fact, they have often argued that the reason to scale back enforcement of drug and other nonviolent offenses is to enable them to target serious violence more aggressively. When it comes to murder, progressive and punitive prosecutors don’t much differ.

Moreover, the changes that progressive prosecutors have adopted toward violent crime are not the sort to lead to more homicides. In Philadelphia, for example, Larry Krasner has started to charge more homicides as third-degree murder rather than first- or second-, moving the expected sentence from life without parole to a standard minimum of 10 years. While that may seem like a major shift, a 20-year sentence does not meaningfully deter people more than a 10-year sentence, while imposing substantial financial and humanitarian costs. One of the most consistent findings in criminology is that the certainty of a sentence, not its severity, is what deters: detection, not punishment. (So it is worth pointing out that the Philadelphia Police Department, whose union has routinely attacked Krasner, struggles to solve murders; it made arrests in fewer than half those committed in that city in 2020.) The claims that Krasner has been soft on gun charges also appear inaccurate—not to mention that his greater emphasis on diversion may actually reduce overall gun violence.

It is also important to note the inaccuracy of trying to pin rising homicides on efforts to “defund” the police. In a December 2020 press conference, for example, Gregg Sofer, at the time the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, tried to blame Austin’s rise in homicides on the city’s recent decision to cut police funding. The problem? Homicides had started to rise well before the cuts, in no small part because the budget in question did not go into effect until October 2020, so almost none of the proposed cuts would have occurred until 2021 at the earliest—and most of the 2021 cuts involve simply shifting which agencies are responsible for certain tasks. What’s more, Sofer did not acknowledge that the police department’s budget had risen by nearly 50 percent since 2013, while crime rates remained basically flat.

Left: Police officers at a Minneapolis crime scene in June 2020. Right: Officers inspecting a crime scene in Chelsea, Massachusetts, in May 2021.

Other invocations of “defunding” have overstated its impact as well. Bloomberg CityLab, for example, reported that while most cities increased police spending for 2021, a few, like New York City, did cut it. The Bloomberg article put the cuts at approximately 15 percent, a number that likely came from the widely reported figure of $1 billion that Mayor Bill de Blasio claimed he cut from the NYPD’s $5.6 billion budget. Except when examined more closely, many of de Blasio’s cuts are based on aggressive budget assumptions and—as with Austin—reductions in police spending that come from moving the jobs to other departments at some future point. All told, the reduction was closer to $400 million—but about $300 million of that depended on projected reductions in overtime pay, and, as of March 2021, the NYPD is on pace to miss that reduction by around $150 million.

If not progressive prosecution or defunding, what caused the surge in homicides? It will be years before we have a clear answer, but the two leading explanations are the chaos wrought by the Covid pandemic and some product of the protests that have taken place against police violence. (Other factors surely mattered, too, such as an unprecedented uptick in gun purchases.) Both theories are valid, but in complicated ways.

Not least among those complications: While the rise in homicides was fairly uniform across cities, the timing of the increases was not. David Abrams at the University of Pennsylvania has gathered daily homicide counts for more than 20 cities, often going back as far as 2015. The results for 2020 are all over the figurative as well as literal map. Some cities see homicide rates decline until the lockdowns, and then rise; some see declines during the lockdowns and spikes when the protests start; some experience homicide rates that are higher than past years over the whole year, seemingly uninfluenced by lockdowns or protests. The data are unambiguously ambiguous.

Let’s start with the Covid explanation. There are numerous ways the pandemic and its fallout could drive shootings and homicides. High unemployment alongside school closures meant a greater number of young men out on the streets. The pandemic also shut down all sorts of programs and interventions that cities have relied on to confront violence. Studies have linked rising crime not just to persistent economic disadvantage, but to the fear that comes with sudden changes in economic prospects, a fear Covid brought with it in spades. The pandemic was deeply stressful and traumatic, and its costs were concentrated in already vulnerable communities. It would be shocking if something with the psychological, economic, and emotional impact of Covid did not contribute to a rise in violence borne of stress and strain.

The causal story linking violence to the protests is also plausible, but more complicated. The most common story is the so-called Ferguson Effect, which argues that police respond to protests by working less hard, which in turn leads to more crime. Rigorous studies, however, have generally failed to find any real connection between this sort of “depolicing” and homicide rates. There is also evidence that people’s views about the legitimacy—or illegitimacy—of law enforcement may influence their willingness to carry and thus use guns even more than concerns about being stopped by the police or victimized themselves. This would suggest that at least some of the lethal violence is the product of anger at police forces that kill far too many Black men, as well as at the remarkably violent, riotous way the police responded to last summer’s protests. To use this violence to justify doubling down on conventional approaches gets the lesson exactly wrong.

In fact, complicating the protest story even more is a recent working paper reporting that Black Lives Matter protests between 2014 and 2019 appeared to lead to a sizable reduction in police killings. Given that such killings are one of the leading causes of death for young Black men, this is no small effect to consider. And even if the protests did lead to some sort of net increase in homicide (the paper also reports an increase in nonpolice homicides, but while bigger than the reduction in police killings, that number is less carefully estimated and likely overstates any actual effect), the better solution is to focus on nonpolice alternatives in response.

Yet while the connection between reforms and the rise in homicide is weak (at best), and while it is important to emphasize this truth, the impact of this observation on policy is unclear—because the connection between crime and the politics of crime is itself unclear. Crime policy certainly reflects trends in crime, but it also is often driven more by broader fears about social disorder and unrest. The politics of criminal legal reform are messy, but they are not random, and understanding how they operate can help us better understand the future ahead.

Criminologists have often analogized criminal policy in the United States to a pendulum that swings with some regularity from harsh punitiveness to progressive rehabilitation and back. The conventional understanding is that these cycles are the product of inevitable overreach: Progressive policies feel too generous when crime rates eventually go up, while repressive tactics ultimately appear excessive when crime rates seem low. A recent book by three sociologists, however, paints a much different picture. In Breaking the Pendulum, Philip Goodman, Joshua Page, and Michelle Phelps argue that major epochal shifts in policy are driven much more by broader economic, cultural, and political transformations. A crime spike might be the spark, but that spark does little without kindling to catch on.

As the authors show, there are never stable “progressive” or “punitive” periods: In any such seeming phase, the “out” group is constantly pushing to reverse the policies it dislikes. At some point, often for reasons unrelated to crime, macro-level conditions change, and if the out group is ready to exploit those changes—which is not always the case—then policy shifts. Only with hindsight does it look like the inevitable swing of a pendulum. At the time, the transition is never assured and is bitterly contested.

We are in the midst of one such intense struggle right now.

Flowers were placed at the scene of a January 2020 shooting in Seattle that left one dead and seven injured.
Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty

In fact, it is the third in as many decades, and examining the previous two illuminates our contentious present. The first occurred in the early 2000s, but had its roots in the early 1990s, when the onset of the “Great Crime Decline” reversed decades of rising crime. As crime fell over the 1990s—reported serious violent and property crime each dropped by 20 to 25 percent over that decade—two interesting trends emerged. First, people perceived what was going on with growing accuracy. The proportion of Americans answering “yes” in an annual Gallup poll asking if they thought crime had risen the year before fell steadily, from 89 percent in 1992 down to the 50s by 1998. And as more and more Americans began to appreciate that crime was falling, the rate of prison population growth slowed.

About a decade into the crime decline, two remarkable things happened: Nearly 60 percent of Americans agreed that crime was still declining, and, for the first time since the 1970s, state prison populations fell (although the 1,776-person drop was masked in national statistics by an 11,000-person increase in the persistently idiosyncratic and punitive federal system). The very next year, however, both trends evaporated. Even though violent crime continued declining, the percent of Americans saying they believed it was rising jumped from 40 percent to 60 percent (and since then has never dropped below 50 percent, even in years with falling crime). Meanwhile, state prison populations rose by nearly 30,000.

What happened? September 11, 2001.

The rise in punitiveness in 2002 had nothing to do with crime and everything to do with fear. September 11, and our angry response to it, produced a scared public, and a scared electorate is a punitive electorate. There had been some nascent efforts by reformers in 2000 to capitalize on the combination of low crime, high incarceration rates, and the stress of the dot-com bust, but efforts were not sufficiently organized, and the politics of 9/11 quickly dominated everything.

The futile efforts in 2000, however, foreshadowed what was to come. The next major campaign for reform came in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and the first decline in national prison populations since the early 1970s took place in 2010, two years into a crippling recession that altered the politics of punishment. It likely helped that crime rates were low and stable, but it also is not clear that that was essential. As the late law professor Bill Stuntz pointed out, white voters can often be indifferent to rising crime: He argued that throughout the 1960s, suburban voters mostly ignored rising crime, and their punitive turn in the 1970s had less to do with crime itself and more with violent protests in places like Detroit, Newark, and Watts that triggered broader fears of racial unrest.

And unlike in 2000 and 2001, reformers in the 2010s were better positioned to take advantage of the economic downturn, the recession itself cut much deeper into state budgets, and no 9/11-type event came along to harden the public’s wary receptiveness. And so, at least until 2020, reformers had the political advantage.

Which brings us to today. It is nearly impossible to understate the chaos of the past year and a half: not just an epochal pandemic that has caused mass death and brought once-in-a-generation economic devastation in its wake, but the fearmongering rhetoric of Donald Trump, the unsettling and still-unresolved insurrection of January 6, and widespread protests of the sort that risk scaring and unnerving white voters. These are conditions that would push much of the public in a more punitive direction even absent any change in crime rates; add in the unprecedented spike in homicides, and demands for severity will grow even stronger, politically speaking.

The signs of that growing severity are widespread. Even though prisons and jails have been leading hot spots for spreading the coronavirus—not just to the poor communities of color overrepresented in the prisons’ populations, but also to the more rural and white working-class communities where correctional officers tend to live—state prison populations barely budged, and early declines in county jail populations have been mostly undone. Democrats and Republicans, governors and legislators and mayors: Almost no one was willing to reduce prison or jail populations. The pandemic provided compelling political cover for releasing large numbers of people from prison; that so few took advantage is telling evidence of a deeper reticence toward real change.

In fact, at least one Democratic governor in a strongly Democratic state, New York’s Andrew Cuomo, went so far as to weaponize the pandemic to roll back reforms that law enforcement lobbyists detested. In March and April 2020—when New York City’s Covid outbreak was at its worst—Cuomo forced the Democratic legislatures to reverse some recently enacted bail reform provisions by threatening to shut down the entire state government, including the Department of Health.

Just as disturbingly, conservative legislatures across the country are capitalizing on the protests over George Floyd’s murder to try to thwart reform efforts in their bluer cities. Ten or so states are proposing to limit cities’ ability to cut police funding; Florida passed just such a law in April. Pennsylvania and Tennessee have already expanded the sorts of cases that the state attorney general can take away from local prosecutors in an effort to undermine progressive prosecutors’ authority (in Pennsylvania, the law applies only to Philadelphia), and other states are also looking to enact more of these sorts of “supersession” laws that give state attorneys general greater power over local cases. Some states also appear to be altering local sovereign immunity rules to try to force cities to respond more aggressively to protests.

There is a caveat to highlight here. Almost all of these examples reflect the actions of state-level officials, not local ones. At the local level, the story appears more optimistic. While many commentators feared that Larry Krasner faced a difficult reelection campaign this year, he coasted to an easy victory in his May 2021 primary, and other local progressive candidates, in both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, won as well. Perhaps even more notable is that while Krasner’s opponent, Carlos Vega, framed his campaign as one that spoke for the victims of Krasner’s allegedly lax policies, Krasner won the districts that saw the largest concentrations of shootings in 2020. In other words, while the residents of those neighborhoods inarguably want shootings reduced, when given a choice, they still opted for the candidate less likely to push for a return to conventional policing approaches. (Of course, there’s variation here as well, and other elections look less promising; in New York City, for instance, one of the front-runners in the mayoral race is a former police captain, Eric Adams.)

So while the path ahead for reformers may be rocky, it is not impassable, especially at more local levels. Nonetheless, at those times when reformers will need to adapt to more-hostile political environments, they should consider how the choices made today will shape the sorts of reforms that will be possible when more favorable conditions inevitably return.

And despite the concerning political developments of 2020, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic about the future, although it may be hard to see at first. Defenders of the status quo are likely to point to two recent polls to argue that support for conventional policing remains high, even among Black communities. A 2020 Gallup poll, taken in June and July—so after George Floyd’s murder and the resulting protests—found that only 19 percent of Black Americans wanted a reduced police presence in their neighborhoods; 20 percent preferred more. A 2021 Data for Progress poll reported similar results with an awkwardly phrased question, answers to which suggested that two-thirds of Black respondents would feel safer with more police patrols.

The results, however, are far more nebulous than they first appear. Take the Gallup poll. When Gallup broke out its results by exposure to police, Black respondents who had regular contact with officers were about four times likelier to say they wanted less contact with them than those who had little contact (34 percent versus 8 percent). Even a survey that separates responses by race is aggregating Black respondents who have had very different experiences with law enforcement. In the Gallup poll, at least, it appears that much of the support for policing, even from Black respondents, comes from those with the least contact with police officers. The demands for significant reform thus seem to remain strong among those most affected by policing. These are people who live disproportionately in neighborhoods with higher rates of violent crime as well—which means they experience most immediately the trade-offs posed by reformers. It is essential to amplify their voices in the debate over police.

Left: Bullet casings and slugs at the scene of a 2019 shooting in Jersey City, New Jersey. Right: Candles were placed outside a deli in memory of the victim of a crime in Brooklyn, New York, in 2020.
From left: Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty; Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty

Furthermore, at the same time that a majority of Black respondents, even those with regular contact with police, said they wanted the same or more policing, they expressed little to no confidence in the institution itself. In another Gallup survey taken at almost the exact same time, only 19 percent of Black respondents said they had confidence in the police, and only 11 percent in the criminal legal system overall. Support for the police appears to be less a positive desire for more enforcement and more like grudging acceptance borne of limited options.

The Data for Progress poll further reinforces this interpretation (despite an effort by one of the NYPD unions to spin the results differently). While it is true that two-thirds of Black respondents said they felt police patrols contributed to public safety, two-thirds of Black respondents also said “you can’t be too careful” when asked if they generally trusted the police or not. And another awkwardly phrased question found that 70 percent of Black respondents (and more than 60 percent of white ones) favored shifting all sorts of service calls away from police to other first responders. Like Gallup’s, Data for Progress’s results suggest that Black support for policing is deeply ambivalent. And Krasner’s primary victory reflects exactly this attitude: The residents in the areas with the most violence soundly rejected the invitation to return to conventional policing.

More broadly, these results are the modern-day version of the story Yale law professor James Forman Jr. tells about 1970s-era Washington, D.C., in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Locking Up Our Own. As Forman explains, at that time D.C. was the only city in the United States with a Black-majority city council, and yet it adopted some of the toughest drug and gun laws in the country. The policies were concessions to the violence of the time. Residents accepted that the police were perhaps essential in that moment to get the guy with the gun off the corner. But the long-term hope—one admittedly thwarted by a punitive-minded Congress—was that the police removing the guy with the gun would give space for investments that would eventually render the police far less necessary. The tough approach was seen as a temporary concession to violence, not as a permanent solution, however much the politics of punishment made it hard to roll back these policies later on.

City leaders today have ways to address this ambivalence that were simply not available in the 1970s. While people in higher-crime neighborhoods may hold complex and ambivalent views about the police, they understandably want someone to rein in the violence their communities face. Traditionally, law enforcement has shouldered that task, but we understand better now how others can do it in their stead. There are an increasing number of ways to reduce violence immediately that do not require an expansion of policing. The sorts of nonpolice alternatives that reformers wish to invest in are not just things like education that have their biggest returns in the future, but interventions that target crime right away.

Perhaps the most successful examples are violence interruption programs, such as Cure Violence and Cure the Streets, which rely on local residents to help “interrupt” the retaliatory nature of crime; the tactics of Cure Violence, at least, have substantial empirical support. And not all solutions have to be directly tied to crime reduction. There is evidence that Medicaid expansion led to a significant decline in both violent and property crimes, not in some distant future, but in the very first year that participating states adopted it (most likely the result of expanding access to non–drug court drug treatment).

The proposition that we can address increased violence without broadening the scope of policing becomes even more plausible once we appreciate how small a share of police work directly targets violence. A New York Times study of three departments reported that police spend about 4 percent of their time responding to calls about violence. Officers will argue—not incorrectly—that this figure understates the work they do to address violence: Some fraction of stops for nonviolent issues may prevent future violence, for example, as does the officer simply patrolling the beat. Nonetheless, it seems clear that police departments could address the rise in lethal violence without expanding in size if they reduce their involvement in nonviolent situations.

Such reassignment should become even easier in the near future, as cities across the country slowly start to fund unarmed emergency response teams, such as CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon, and STAR in Denver, Colorado, to respond to many of the nonviolent issues that have traditionally absorbed much of the police’s time, like calls relating to mental health crises, homelessness, and so on. Other cities are also starting to assign traffic stops, which took as much as 20 percent of police departments’ time in the New York Times study above, to unarmed responders. (As to the claim that often-pretextual traffic stops are an important tool to prevent violence: The number of such stops that produce any sort of contraband, much less something like a gun, appears to be under 1 percent, and in exchange such stops risk undermining people’s views about police legitimacy—which, as mentioned above, can itself contribute to rising violence.)

It is important, however, to note how difficult it may be to fund these kinds of programs, so long as the funding depends on cutting police budgets. A recent popular cartoon in favor of such reallocations suggested it would be a win-win for police and reformers alike: It showed a police officer smiling as reformers lifted burdens titled “theft,” “every unexpected crisis,” “prostitution,” and so on off his back until he was left with just one, called “keep the peace.” The image is optimistic, and it glosses over the politics of budgets. In many big cities, as much as 90 percent of police spending goes to wages, benefits, and pensions: If we are going to fund these other programs by cutting police spending, it will only be by cutting police staffing. And that is something the police will resist—increasingly with support from state legislatures.

Yet the expansion of programs like CAHOOTS and STAR may help with the politics here as well. In the short run, their existence helps push back against claims that public safety requires more spending on the police. In the longer run, these programs will become entrenched interests of their own that can check the power of police lobbying. It’s actually politically popular to fund programs like CAHOOTS and STAR—as long as the funding is not framed as a way to cut back policing. In an increasingly hostile short run, then, it may be better to advocate for these programs on their own terms, and then capitalize on their existence in the future to push for police reductions.

Finally, if the expansion of policing proves politically inevitable—either in cities that have elections that turn out differently than Philadelphia’s and Pittsburgh’s, or due to state preemption laws that limit efforts to cut police funding—reformers should work to push that expansion in directions that will be easiest to reverse when, as surely will be the case, the political winds shift again. The response today will define the status quo down the line, and any present retreat should be conducted with as much of a strategic eye to the future as possible.

For example, many abolitionists have argued in favor of capping police overtime, but it may be better in the short run to allow for greater overtime instead of hiring more entry-level officers. Even though overtime diverts funds from other nonpolice programs, so too does new hiring, and it may be easier in the future to scale back overtime than to terminate positions. Both approaches can satisfy inescapable demands in the present for more police, but one may be easier to reverse.

Arguments for expanding the use of electronic surveillance, such as street cameras and gunshot-monitoring microphones, should face similar skepticism. Proponents will argue, with some credibility, that these are lower-cost devices that can bolster law enforcement at a time of tight budgets. Yet, however appealing that lower cost may be, it also means that these systems will be easier to maintain in the future, and harder to remove. Surveillance systems are inherently “sticky.” As critics increasingly point out, the United States is haphazardly stumbling toward a level of pervasive surveillance that might surprise many; we may not be where China is, but we’re not exactly walking a different path either. Investments rashly made today, under the combined pressures of a homicide spike, Covid-related uncertainty, and financial contraction, may prove hard to undo in better times.

Reform efforts will inarguably face tougher opposition in the years ahead. The social and economic upheavals of Covid, like the emotional shock of 9/11, would likely have been enough on their own to shift many people’s attitudes on crime policy in a more punitive direction; the homicide spike of 2020, and its continuing fallout through 2021, all but guarantee such a move—especially for issues like police funding. Conservative state legislatures show increasing interest in limiting the cuts that can be made by bluer cities, where support for reform may remain high. But all these transformations do not mean that the defenders of the status quo are guaranteed a victory. They are using the current atmosphere of fear to push hard against reforms, but they are also facing more effective and motivated opposition than at any other time recently, and support for reform still seems high in the communities that are most directly affected. Meanwhile, there is little to no evidence linking the rise in homicides to the reforms that have actually been implemented, many of the reforms being fought for are designed to reduce violence immediately, and many may do so both more effectively and at a lower social and human cost than the status quo. The politics may be turning toward the status quo, but the data are not.