Half the Police Force Quit. Crime Dropped.
In a staggering report last month, the Department of Justice documented pervasive abuse, illegal use of force, racial bias and systemic dysfunction in the Minneapolis Police Department. City police officers engaged in brutality or made racist comments, even as a department investigator rode along in a patrol car. Complaints about police abuse were often slow-walked or dismissed without investigation. And after George Floyd’s death, instead of ending the policy of racial profiling, the police just buried the evidence.
The Minneapolis report was shocking, but it wasn’t surprising. It doesn’t read much differently from recent Justice Department reports about the police departments in Chicago, Baltimore, Cleveland, Albuquerque, New Orleans, Ferguson, Mo., or any of three recent reports from various sources about Minneapolis, from 2003, 2015 and 2016.
Amid spiking nationwide homicide rates in 2020 and 2021 and a continuing shortage of police officers, many in law enforcement have pointed to investigations like these — along with “defund the police”-style activism — as the problem. With all the criticism they are weathering, the argument goes, officers are so hemmed in, they can no longer do their job right; eventually they quit, defeated and demoralized. Fewer police officers, more crime.
Lying just below the surface of that characterization is a starkly cynical message to marginalized communities: You can have accountable and constitutional policing, or you can have safety. But you can’t have both.
In accord with that view, some academic studies have found that more police officers can correlate with less crime. But the studies don’t account for factors that the Minneapolis report highlights — the social costs of police brutality and misconduct, how they can erode public trust, how that erosion of trust affects public safety — and they don’t account for the potential benefits of less coercive, less confrontational alternatives to the police. We don’t have as many studies that take those factors into account, but to see the effects in real time, you need only step over the Minneapolis city line.
Golden Valley is a suburb of about 22,000 that in many ways is as idyllic as its name suggests. The median annual household income tops $100,000, there’s very little crime, and 15 percent of the town is devoted to parks and green spaces, including Theodore Wirth Park on its eastern border, a lush space that hosts a bike path and a parkway.
But the town’s Elysian charm comes with a dark past. Just on the other side of the park lies the neighborhood of Willard-Hay. There, the median household income drops to about $55,000 per year, and there’s quite a bit more crime. Willard-Hay is 26 percent white and 40 percent Black. Golden Valley is 85 percent white and 5 percent Black — the result of pervasive racial covenants.
“We enjoy prosperity and security in this community,” said Shep Harris, the mayor since 2012. “But that has come at a cost. I think it took incidents like the murder of George Floyd to help us see that more clearly.” The residents of the strongly left-leaning town decided change was necessary. One step was eliminating those racial covenants. Another was changing the Police Department, which had a reputation for mistreating people of color.
The first hire was Officer Alice White, the force’s first high-ranking Black woman. The second was Virgil Green, the town’s first Black police chief.
“When I started, Black folks I’d speak to in Minneapolis seemed surprised that I’d been hired,” Chief Green said when I spoke with him recently. “They told me they and most people they knew avoided driving through Golden Valley.”
Members of the overwhelmingly white police force responded to both hires by quitting — in droves.
An outside investigation later revealed that some officers had run an opposition campaign against Chief Green. One of those officers recorded herself making a series of racist comments during a call with city officials, then sent the recording to other police officers. She was fired — prompting yet another wave of resignations.
The typical Golden Valley police officer makes a six-figure salary with good benefits. The city has almost no violent crime. It’s a good gig. Yet in just two years, more than half the department quit.
“I haven’t been on the job long enough to make any significant changes,” Chief Green said. “Yet we’re losing officers left and right. It’s hard not to think that they just don’t want to work under a Black supervisor.”
The interesting thing is that according to Chief Green, despite the reduction in staff, crime — already low — has gone down in Golden Valley. The town plans to staff the department back up, just not right away. “I’ve heard that the police union is cautioning officers from coming to work here,” Mr. Harris said. “But that’s OK. We want to take the time to hire officers who share our vision and are excited to work toward our goals.”
Mr. Harris is quick to point out that Golden Valley may not be the perfect model for the rest of the country. “This is a wealthy community with very little crime,” he said. “We can afford to go through this change. I realize that may not be the case in other places.”
There is reason to think it may. When New York’s officers engaged in an announced slowdown in policing in late 2014 and early 2015, civilian complaints of major crime in the city dropped. And despite significant staffing shortages at law enforcement agencies around the country, if trends continue, 2023 will have the largest percentage drop in homicides in U.S. history. It’s true that such a drop would come after a two-year surge, but the fact that it would also occur after a significant reduction in law enforcement personnel suggests the surge may have been due more to the pandemic and its effects than depolicing.
At the very least, the steady stream of Justice Department reports depicting rampant police abuse ought to temper the claim that policing shortages are fueling crime. It’s no coincidence that the cities we most associate with violence also have long and documented histories of police abuse. When people don’t trust law enforcement, they stop cooperating and resolve disputes in other ways. Instead of fighting to retain police officers who feel threatened by accountability and perpetuate that distrust, cities might consider just letting them leave.
Radley Balko is the author of “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces” and the criminal justice newsletter The Watch.