Vox: 'Abolish the police' helps shift the Overton Window

Vox published a piece today which argues that whether or not the concept of abolishing the police is a good idea, it does have value as a way to change the narrative. Author Emily VanDerWerff says the phrase is helping to shift the Overton Window about the types of reform that are possible.

A lot of the tension between leftist politics and more mainstream liberal politics boils down to one big disconnect. The former group reads “abolish the police” and internalizes that statement as a goal perhaps even more than as a solution. Even the most hardcore advocate of this position would agree that we should probably have a process for dealing with murder and other violent crimes…

If I could be slightly too reductive, I would say most leftists hear “abolish the police” and understand it to mean “[work to] abolish the police [in their current form by taking several well-planned steps to reform the existing justice system],” while more mainstream liberals hear that phrase and understand it to mean, “abolish the police [first, and then something something something],” where “something something something” is a host of unforeseen consequences that will sweep in without more incremental change…

Thus, the surface-level debate over “abolish the police” is not a matter of policy; it’s a matter of political discourse. And it’s already bearing fruit, if the moves made by local governments throughout the country — Minneapolis’s pledge to dismantle its own police department is an obvious example — are any indication. Even if you vehemently disagree with the idea of abolishing the police, just the statement of the phrase shifts the Overton window and makes you rethink what is possible within American politics.

In other words, we should take the protesters seriously, not literally. Where have I heard this before? The author has a point about this moving the Overton Window. If abolishing police is on the table, it makes changes in police funding levels look a lot less extreme. But what the author doesn’t really try to deal with in this piece (and she admits this up front) is whether or not this is a good idea.

I’ve pointed out this earlier Vox piece once before but it’s worth a look if you haven’t seen it. Before Vox became swept up in the “abolish” narrative, author Matt Yglesias wrote a piece last year arguing for more police as a solution to some of our policing problems:

In a 2005 paper, Jonathan Glick and Alex Tabarrok found a clever instrument to measure the effects of officer increases through the terrorism “alert levels” that were a feature of the early to mid-aughts. During high-alert periods, the Washington, DC, police force would mobilize extra officers, especially in and around the capital’s core, centered on the National Mall. Using daily crime data, they found that the level of crime decreased significantly on high-alert days, and the decrease was especially concentrated on the National Mall.

Critically, the finding was notthat adding police officers leads to more arrests and then locking up crooks leads to lower crime in the long run. It’s simply that with more officers around, fewer people commit crimes in the first place. That seems to be the criminal justice ideal, in which fewer people are getting locked up because fewer people are being victimized by criminals.

This sounds a little paradoxical, but the reality is the size of the prison population is driven largely by the harshness of the sentencing, not the number of police stops. The criminologist Lawrence Sherman has observed that the United States is very unusual in spending much more money on the prison system than on our police departments. This suggests the possibility of switching to a formula Tabarrok has summarized as “more police, fewer prisons, less crime”: uniformed officers patrolling the streets stopping crime before it starts rather than working in prisons surveilling convicts.

About a year ago, Stephen Mello of Princeton University assessed the Obama-era increase in federal police funding. Thanks to the stimulus bill, funding for Clinton’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) hiring grant program surged from about $20 million a year in the late-Bush era to $1 billion in 2009. The program design allowed Mello to assess some quasi-random variation in which cities got grants. The data shows that compared to cities that missed out, those that made the cut ended up with police staffing levels that were 3.2 percent higher and crime levels that were 3.5 percent lower.

The evidence from that latter study suggests there is more benefit yet to be gained from putting more cops on the beat. So what happens when you do the opposite? What happens when the narrative is “abolish the police” and, at a minimum, cities begin slashing budgets toward that goal. Logically, if more cops equal less crime then fewer cops should result in more crime.

The piece also points out that the goal of hiring more police is popular, including among black Americans. Has that really changed in the last few weeks or is the new “abolish the police” narrative just being dictated by a very small and extreme segment of the far left? My guess is it’s very much the latter.

Remember a few months ago when Bernie Sanders was riding high in the polls and his supporters were convinced he was about to become the Democratic nominee? It didn’t happen. Instead, more moderate voters stepped up and made Joe Biden the nominee. Far left views may get more of a hearing in America than they used to get, but most people, including most Democrats, aren’t really there yet.

What we’re seeing now with “abolish the police” is more about a shift in the Overton Window than a genuine change in public sentiment. If so, this will work out about the same as Bernie’s campaign. In fact, I suspect this moment of progressive triumph, bringing this new narrative to the forefront, will once again end in tears for the far left.