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Police officers in a line

Police in riot gear stand in formation during protests on May 29, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. Protests erupted nationwide that year after police killings of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Biden's "Safer America Plan" Should Follow the Science of Public Safety

Instead of investing nearly $13 billion in hiring 100,000 new police officers, the science suggests these same funds should be invested in social welfare.

Kenneth Antonio Colón

Last week, President Biden addressed a crowd in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, pitching his plan to combat crime and gun violence, dubbed the "Safer America Plan". The plan includes a number of important measures in line with what advocates of criminal justice reform have been fighting for, with these specific measures receiving praise from organizations like the ACLU.

Namely, the plan calls for establishing a $15 billion grant program, to be dispersed over a period of 10 years, to help states and localities invest in crime prevention initiatives—for example, local mental health and substance use disorder services, or jobs programs for teenagers and young adults. Furthermore, the plan calls for $5 billion to be invested in expanding and building capacity for community violence intervention programs.

However, one key feature of the plan is drawing near-universal ire from advocates, including the ACLU and NAACP Legal Defense Fund: the proposed hiring of 100,000 new police officers. Part of the backlash comes from the eye-popping price tag of the measure: a total cost of $12.8 billion, per White House estimates.

This proposed multi-billion dollar expansion of the police force comes at a time when aging water plants and pipes, further deteriorated by extreme weather events, have left the 150,000 residents of Jackson, Mississippi without clean drinking water. At the same time, the Colorado River, which 40 million people rely on for drinking water, crop irrigation, and power generation, is seeing its worst drought in well over one-thousand years, with the federal government failing to intervene, even at states' behest.

The federal government can address violent crime, infrastructure, and climate resiliency simultaneously; one need not come at the expense of the other, given the vast resources at the federal government's disposal. However, even if the federal government is to focus on violent crime reduction while ignoring these other issues, research suggests an expanded police force may not be the best solution.

Proponents of an expanded police force may point to one 2020 working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which estimates that "Each additional police officer abates approximately 0.1 homicides," based on its study of 242 large American cities. Applying this result to the national level would suggest that a police force expansion of 100,000 officers would abate roughly 10,000 homicides.

This 0.1 homicides averted figure, however, represents the upper end of the paper's primary model estimates, which range from 0.058 to 0.102.  Further, the paper's primary model relies on the instrumental variable (IV) approach, which, as one review of 255 papers using the IV approach found, often produces "implausibly large" estimates.

The paper's supplementary model, which uses the more standard Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) regression, predicts a much more modest effect: 0.051 homicides averted per additional officer, suggesting the hiring of 100,000 additional officers would avert 5,100 homicides.

But even this result is out of step with the academic consensus. A 2016 systematic review of 62 studies and 229 related to U.S. police force size and crime, published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology, found that "the overall effect size for police force size on crime is negative, small, and not statistically significant."

These results were echoed by a 2017 study published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, which concluded that "there is little reason to believe that increasing the number of police officers will have a large effect on violent crime." Similarly, a 2019 study published in Criminology & Public Policy found no evidence that less proactive law enforcement and fewer arrests leads to increased rates of homicide.

Not only are the effects of increased police force size on violent crime dubious at best, but they are also associated with significant negative consequences. Returning to the 2020 NBER working paper, we see that even these models predict as many as 0.0029 civilians killed per officer hired; with 100,000 new officers hired, this could mean as many as 290 more civilians shot to death by police.

Furthermore, the NBER models predict 7.32-21.88 "quality of life" arrests—arrests for low-level crimes such as drug possession or loitering—per marginal officer, with these arrests bearing no reduction in rates of serious crime. Scaled up to 100,000 officers, this could mean 732,000 to 2.2 million arrests for petty crimes. Notably, Black civilians would be expected to make up over half of these arrests, being arrested at 3-4x the rate of their White counterparts.

As previous research has shown, low-level arrests of this nature—even those that do not result in formal charges or a conviction—can have significant negative effects on physical and mental health and future hiring prospects / employability.

Given all of this, one may ask if there is a better alternative—an investment that is more likely to result in reduced incidence of violent crime (i.e., homicides averted), with less chance for serious downsides (i.e., civilian deaths, unnecessary arrests)—as opposed to increasing the size of the police force.

The answer lies certainly not in increased police militarization, which has consistently been shown to have no meaningful impact on public safety, only serving to further erode community support of police. Rather, the overwhelming weight of evidence suggests investment in social programs is key to violent crime reduction.

For example, one 2019 study published in PLOS Medicine found increased levels of per-capita welfare and education spending were associated with 14% and 22% reductions in homicide rates, respectively. Similarly, a 2017 study published in the BMJ found that every $10,000 increase in spending on social programs per person living in poverty was associated with a 16% decline in homicide rates.

Another BMJ study found that addressing income inequality in the U.S. between rich and poor could be a fruitful means of averting homicide, with greater levels of income inequality associated with greater rates of homicide.

Yet another study, published earlier this year in Preventive Medicine, found that affordable housing programs specifically reduced statewide levels of intimate partner homicide by 10-20%.

We can see this phenomenon holds true beyond the U.S. and across our economic peer nations, with one 2017 study published in Justice Quarterly finding that increased spending on social programs, as a percentage of GDP, was associated with decreased rates of homicide and interpersonal violence.

This echoes the conclusions of a 2014 longitudinal analysis of European nations published in Social Science Research, which found that "even incremental, short-term changes in welfare support spending are associated with short-term reductions in homicide."

Given this wealth of evidence, we can be reasonably sure that investing $12.8 billion in social programs will have a more pronounced effect on reducing violent crime rates (and fewer serious negative consequences) than investing that same total in the expansion of a police force already constituting nearly 700,000 officers.

In either case, working to pass meaningful gun legislation should remain a top priority for government action to reduce violent crime. At the state level, universal background checks and violent misdemeanor laws have been associated with decreases in homicide rates of 15% and 18%, respectively, as found by a 2019 study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Given 24,576 homicides nationwide in 2020, applying these decreases at the national level would mean roughly 3,700-4,400 homicides averted. We again see this play out at an international level, with a 2020 study in Regulation and Governance finding that stricter gun control measures were associated with decreased rates of homicide and interpersonal violence across European nations.

To President Biden's credit, the Safer America Plan does call for closing numerous loopholes in our existing gun background check system, and calls on Congress to pass universal background checks and bans on the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Without concrete action, however, these calls remain just that.

If President Biden truly wants to keep the American people safe, his administration must follow the science as it pertains to public safety. Instead of investing nearly $13 billion in hiring 100,000 new police officers, the science suggests these same funds should be invested in social welfare, which are far more likely to result in significant violent crime reductions, without thousands more civilians killed by police, or millions more harmful, unnecessary arrests for petty crime.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Kenneth Colon

Kenneth Antonio Colón

Kenneth A. Colón, MPA is a Research Affiliate at the Yale University School of Public Health.

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