San Jose mayor’s refusal to defund police relies on unsubstantiated ideas

Illustration of a winding road through the city of San Jose, with scattered police officers throughout
Aishwarya Jayadeep/Staff

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Since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, calls by activists to defund or abolish the police have grown. These proposals would see some police funds reallocated from policing to other city services such as homelessness prevention, domestic abuse counselors and addiction treatment to decrease the risk of the deadly encounters with police that we in the United States have come to see in the news far too often.

The United States spends more on policing than most other countries do. With police spending surpassing $100 billion annually (with tens of billions of dollars more spent on incarceration), the United States has 27% more police officers per capita than Canada, 83% more than Finland and even more than countries such as China, Iran and Pakistan, which many Americans imagine to be police states.

Even with this spending, the United States sees crime rates no better than other parts of the developed world, and murder rates significantly higher than virtually all of Europe, and even some war-torn countries such as Angola, Syria and Libya.

Despite the popular concept of “a cop on every corner” being the solution to violent crime, there is very little supporting evidence.  Historically, U.S. cities have shown no correlation between crime rates and either police spending or number of police officers.

This fact, however, has not stopped San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo from naming this as reasoning not to defund the city’s police force, opting instead for less sweeping and less effective reforms. Citing disproportionately high crime rates in low-income and minority communities, Liccardo in June rejected calls to defund the police, saying that “defunding police will hurt the very people who have suffered the most from systemic racism in this nation.”

If one looks at the relationship between police staffing in the United States and crime rates, there is little to no correlation. Some of the cities with the most police officers per capita in the United States, such as New York City and Miami, have relatively low crime rates, according to FBI statistics — 538.9 violent crimes per 100,000 people in New York and 720.94 in Miami.

But other cities with similar levels of policing — such as Chicago and Baltimore — have much higher crime rates comparatively, with these cities experiencing 1,098.86 and 2,027.01 violent crimes per 100,000 people, respectively. The most crime-laden city in the United States is actually St. Louis, which ranks 11th in the country for police officers per capita and seventh for total police employees per capita.

Similarly, national police spending has risen over time. In 1960, our government poured out about $2 billion; by 1980, the sum had climbed to $14.6 billion, and in 2018, a stunning $137 billion was spent on policing. Despite these consistent increases, crime rates did not consistently fall. In this 60-year span, crime rates have risen and fallen, always moving in proportion to crime rates around the world.

These patterns suggest that there is little or no correlation between increased police spending or having more police officers and a decline in crime rates. Given this context, Liccardo’s insistence that decreasing police funding would lead to more crime in minority communities is perplexing. In fact, according to The Mercury News, in the past five years, the San Jose Police Department has experienced more officer-involved fatalities than any other city in the Bay Area has, with these killings falling disproportionately hard on Black and Latinx communities.

In San Jose, and across the country, it is important that our public officials take decisive action to reform the police. Although Liccardo has attempted to don the colors of police reform, he has proposed only minor reforms, which have been implemented with little success in the past. His reforms include measures such as funding for body cameras and implicit bias training, which at one point drew praise but have since proven to be ineffective at reducing police violence.

A 2018 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that implicit bias training “can be extremely effective in the short-term, however the issue is that it does not have lasting effects.” Further, according to a 2018 article in the journal Criminology and Public Policy, body-worn cameras “have not had statistically significant or consistent effects on most measures of officer and citizen behavior.”

Despite this evidence, Liccardo has refused to redirect funds from police to essential social services, even amid the pandemic — which has caused widespread city budget cuts across the country — and as the Bay Area and the country at large face a reckoning on institutional racism and police. The recent San Jose budget proposal cuts the funding of the SJPD by only 1.5%, a meager alteration when compared to the more than 5% of funding for other services, such as water pollution control, parks and libraries, cut from the city’s budget.

Many crimes are caused by desperation, rooted in societal ills such as poverty and addiction. By diverting funds from police to social services, cities could increase the reach of these programs, making them more accessible to the people who need them. In turn, this could preemptively prevent crime. Additionally, by decreasing the number of interactions between armed police and civilians, we provide fewer opportunities for the kind of violent incidents that occurred in Minneapolis.

Liccardo’s insistence on maintaining San Jose’s current police structure with only minimal reform represents an outdated mindset and a debunked model of policing. Moreso, it fails to address the systemic failings that so many have been fighting so hard to defeat. Liccardo and the city of San Jose must commit to more significant and more sweeping reforms of policing, capable of making a dent in the pattern of death and oppression that has come to characterize U.S. policing.

Ian Stephens is a political scientist, the owner of and a progressive activist working for Oakland-based nonprofit Hip Hop For Change.